Parent group Houston Justice is closing deal on an inmate-accessible polling place
“Project Orange” – a Houston Justice voter enfranchisement effort – has registered more than 2,500 people incarcerated in the Harris County Jail since 2018.
“It’s a jail-based voter initiative extending voter registration and access to absentee ballot applications to people who happen to be incarcerated but are otherwise eligible to register and to vote,” said Durrel Douglas, a Houston Justice co-founder and its president. “We’ve made it known that people can vote in the jail, so now there’s mail-in ballot applications. And if people know people can vote in the jail, they known they can vote on the outside. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by 10,000 votes. It has the potential to really make a difference.”
Eligible voters in Texas are U.S. citizens who will be 18 years old by Election Day, live in the county of registration and have not been convicted of a felony or, if they have, are “off paper” by having completed their sentence, parole and probation.
The name “Project Orange” is a play on the Netflix behind-the-walls comedy series “Orange Is the New Black” and because inmates in the state’s largest county lockup wear scrubs in that color.
Houston Justice recently released two new public service announcements from Bayou City rappers Bun B and Trae tha Truth. Both encourage Harris County jail inmates to vote.
“We want to let everybody that’s incarcerated know that we haven’t forgotten about them, that their lives are important and their voice matters as well. And for some of them who are under current pretrial conditions, your voice is still able to be heard in this world,” Bun B says in his 1-minute video. “If you know you’re still going to be locked up during early voting or on Election Day, please request a ballot to vote by mail. You can vote from jail if you meet the requirements.”
HOW TO VOTE BY MAIL IN JAIL is the opening image of Trae’s video.
“Contact the jail chaplain to get the right papers and get directed in the right way,” he says. “It’s about us as a whole, man. We’ve got to take stuff in our own hands. Let’s get it.”
Oct. 23 is the last day to apply for a ballot by mail in Harris County (received by the county clerk’s office, not postmarked) for the Nov. 3 general election. Early voting will be Oct. 13 to Oct. 30.
A disproportionate number of Harris County Jail inmates are Black. Black people comprise comprise about 20 percent of Harris County’s residents, but half of the jail population.
“Project Orange” continues to work on establishing a polling place in the Harris County Jail or one accessible to its residents. Many pretrial inmates – those who have not been convicted – have the legal standing to vote, as do many who only have misdemeanor convictions. Take, for instance, a person who begins pretrial detention during early voting. He would have been eligible to vote on the outside, it’s too late to apply for a mail ballot and he won’t have access to a polling place.
“He cannot request a mail ballot and he won’t be able to go vote, so if he makes the case that he’s being disenfranchised – even if the county were to do a police escort for him to vote – what about the other inmates who are also eligible? You’d have to do it for every inmate who qualified,” said Douglas, a former correctional officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state’s prison system.
That’s one argument for an inmate-accessible polling place.
Harris County Commissioners passed a motion last year to explore establishing a voting location at the Harris County jail, which is actually a complex of lockups in downtown Houston with an inmate capacity of about 10,500.
Douglas said a compromise with the county is on the horizon.
“Their argument is that you can’t have an exclusive polling location. You can’t have a polling location inside the jail that’s not accessible to other people,” he said. “The inmates have to go to court through the tunnel. Even though they’re escorted, it’s a public place, so that’s where we’re looking at doing it because it’s technically a public place.”
The Sentencing Project’s May 2020 advocacy report “Voting in Jails” discussed Houston Justice’s work and challenges in the Harris County Jail.
“Harris County relies on the efforts of community groups to register incarcerated voters and facilitate voting by mail. Groups like Houston Justice and the Texas Organizing Project have worked for several years to register and support voting for incarcerated residents. The Houston Justice group launched Project Orange in 2018 and reported registering more than 870 persons in 2019 and more than 1,300 persons in 2018. In 2018, more than 300 persons voted by mail from the Harris County Jail.”
Inspired by efforts in Illinois, local officials and advocacy groups are working to expand voter access to incarcerated residents. The Harris County Commissioners Court authorized a proposal to place a polling location in the county’s jail in 2019. The County, however, has not implemented this measure yet due to objections made by the [now former] County Clerk, Diane Trautman.
Trautman raised several obstacles that she claimed barred her from establishing a polling location at the jail, including incarcerated residents’ lack of identification necessary to cast ballots and the county jail’s lack of internet access which would complicate the duties of election workers. She also insists that any polling place—including one at a jail—would be required to be open to the public at large, meaning the general public must be able to enter the jail and have access to the proposed polling location for voting purposes. Trautman also suggested that creating a polling place in the jail would risk violating the rights of the public, because jail security would bar them from a polling place they should be entitled to enter.
The Campaign Legal Center and Demos countered Trautman’s objections by asserting that the state and county have an obligation to accommodate the voting rights of incarcerated residents and suggested accommodations. For example, to overcome the lack of identification among jailed voters, the Clerk’s office could accept inmate identification.”
“Project Orange” organizers have received support for an inmate-accessible voting location from Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia as well as Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who was appointed this year after Trautman’s surprise resignation.
Founded in 2014 after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Houston Justice is a non-partisan, grassroots, advocacy organization. Much of the group’s work has focused on criminal justice reform. Its early projects included advocating for a Houston Police Department policy for the use of body cameras and diversifying Harris County’s grand juries.
More recent Houston Justice efforts include a COVID-19 helpline to help those with food insecurity who don’t have transportation and police accountability efforts sparked by the officer knee-on-neck death of Houstonian George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Houston Justice volunteers are accustomed to victories and challenges. The organization aimed to launched “Project Orange” in late summer 2017, but Hurricane Harvey derailed those plans.
Its work inside the jail in early 2018 yielded 300 registrations. A second campaign in the fall of that year yielded 1,200 more, bringing the total to 1,500, Douglas said.
In 2019, the only rounds were in August and September ahead of the Houston mayoral election. Volunteers registered another 1,000 people inside the jail – bringing the group’s rolling total to more than 2,500, Douglas added.
COVID-19 impacted “Project Orange” by delaying 2020 registration efforts.
Houston Justice volunteers finally got inside the jail for the first time in June, then again in August. They still have a few weeks before the general election deadline for registration (Oct. 5) and mail ballot applications (Oct. 23).
“Project Orange” is also celebrating another victory: Mail ballot applications from the Harris County Jail for the primary runoff in July exceeded the requests for the March primary, Douglas said.
Primary runoffs historically have lower turnouts than primaries and general elections.