ABOVE: Assistant Chief Debra Schmidt, Charnelle Thompson, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Tracy Baskin at press conference announcing Project Orange partnership
Harris County has the largest county jail in Texas, and with a little over 8,000 inmates, a significant number of those inmates still retain their right to participate in American democracy through voting, including 52% of that current population which is African American.
As a matter of fact, a significantly large percentage (70%) of the inmates sitting in Harris County jail have not been convicted of a crime yet and have not been sentenced by a judge.
Subsequently, due to a current bail system here in Texas that has been at the forefront of civil rights and public policy conversations over the past several years, people have been kept behind bars because they can’t afford bail, and once election season comes around, there has been no apparatus, system or mechanism in place to allow these qualified inmates to vote.
It is important to highlight the fact that since these qualified inmates have yet to be convicted of a crime, they are eligible to vote, and unfortunately, there are no voting booths at the Harris County Jail. Well, thanks to groups like Houston Justice, that is about to change.
This past Friday, January 12th, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez held a press conference along with Houston Justice representative Charnelle Thompson and Harris County Tax Office Communication and Media Relations Director Tracy Baskin, to announce what many are calling the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to help qualified incarcerated citizens register to vote who are currently in the Harris County Jail. That initiative is called Project Orange.
Project Orange is the brainchild of Houston Justice co-founder and Executive Director Durrel Douglas, whose first job out of high school was as a prison guard at a Texas prison. Douglas was moved to start this initiative after seeing how incarcerated individuals, who happened to make a mistake in their lives, were treated before and after being behind those prison bars.
“When we sat down to plan Project Orange, our goal was to reach out to eligible voters who are often ignored,” said Douglas. “When people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to rebuild their lives. Point blank…we want as many eligible voters to register, and vote. I don’t care what party they prefer, or which candidates or issues drive them. Our goal was, and continues to be to engage as many citizens as possible.”
As part of the Project Orange initiative, for four consecutive Sundays, beginning this past weekend, volunteers from Houston Justice will be escorted through the jail with voter registration cards that qualified inmates will be able to fill out. In addition, Houston Justice is staffing voter registration booths in the visitation waiting areas at the 1200 Baker Street and at the 701 San Jacinto locations.
“In our first Sunday, we registered 100 new voters,” said Douglas. “We have three more Sundays to go for our inaugural push. In the future, we plan to do this in other cities across the state as well.”
Because State law requires that a person register 30 days prior to the election in which they wish to vote, this initiative will allow those qualified inmates to register in time for the Democratic and Republican primaries, which will be welcomed news to those who wish not to have their constitutional rights trampled upon. Sheriff Gonzales emphasized this importance.
“As an elected official and a duly sworn law enforcement officer, I take my oath to uphold the Constitution seriously, and I believe this initiative supports that cause,” Sheriff Gonzalez said at the press conference. “I want to thank Houston Justice for approaching our office with this proposal.
At the press conference, Sheriff Gonzalez also pointed out that they had originally planned to launch Project Orange last fall, but Hurricane Harvey temporarily derailed their efforts. He also pointed out that he was focused on doing the right thing for U.S. citizens, in spite of there being some who may question the motives and intentions for such an initiative.
“Now, I know that some may question this initiative,” said Sheriff Gonzalez. “To them, I would say that the vast majority of inmates in the Harris County Jail are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. It is our patriotic duty to ensure that this sacred right to vote is not forfeited for our citizens who meet all the legal requirements to cast a ballot on Election Day.”
Sheriff Gonzalez was correct in his assessment about having the motives of the initiative questioned, in that as soon as news of the initiative hit the streets, the Harris County Republican Party sent the following message out on social media to its followers on its Facebook page:
“Today, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (Democrat Sheriff) announced a *partnership* with the Harris County Tax Office (Democrat Tax Assessor) and Houston Justice (Leftist Social Justice Warrior group) to help incarcerated citizens register to vote…..The Project Orange initiative is the most egregious effort ever undertaken to register inmates of the Harris County Jail. This is hardly the best use of taxpayer dollars. Why not go to churches or grocery stores to register voters? Why the jail?”
According to the U.S. Constitution, American citizens are guaranteed the right to vote, as long as they are:
- A US citizen
- At least 18 on election day
- Not a convicted felon still serving a sentence
- Not mentally incapacitated
In Harris County, an individual may register to vote if they fulfill all of the following requirements:
- Are a resident of Harris County.
- Are at least 17 years, 10 months of age (To vote, you must be 18).
- Are a U.S. citizen.
- Have not been declared totally mentally incapacitated or partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote by a final judgment of a court exercising probate jurisdiction.
- Are not finally convicted of a felony—or have satisfied the court’s requirements after a felony conviction or have received a pardon.
It was important to get the Harris County Tax Office involved in this initiative, for a variety of reasons as well. They will play an important role in validating these qualified Harris County voters and keeping the integrity of the voting process intact.
In Texas, the County Tax Assessor-Collector is the Voter Registrar for the county. In Harris County, Ann Harris Bennett (D) serves as the Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar in Harris County, and is charged with establishing one or more branch offices in Harris County to conduct voter registration activities for the convenience of persons desiring to register, with those branch offices being either temporary or permanent. The Harris County Tax Office will be responsible for maintaining and securing the files containing the approved registration applications of the registered voters from the Harris County Jail, and preparing a certified list of qualified voters that come out of the Harris County Jail for the established election precinct.
So, as a result of this innovative new initiative and collaborative partnership between these entities, there is no telling how this will impact the upcoming Democratic and Republican primaries or the general election in November, but what we do know is that this initiative is sure to cause many other cities across Texas and the United States to take notice.
The Forward Times will keep you posted on the results of Project Orange and the impact it has on our local, county, statewide and federal elections moving forward.