Partners boost voting by those incarcerated in Multnomah County
On the final day for Oregonians to register to vote in the upcoming primary election — Tuesday, April 26 — Jana Jarosh geared up for one last voter registration drive.
Her destination: the Multnomah County Detention Center.
Jarosh, a co-founder of the advocacy group Voting in Jails PDX, has been a driving force behind a recent increase in voting by people incarcerated at Multnomah County's jails.
Along with a small group of volunteers and officials from Multnomah County's elections division and sheriff's office, Jarosh has been educating incarcerated people about how to vote and providing election information and voter registration cards.
"Most (incarcerated) people are not aware they have the right to vote," Jarosh said. "That is what I have encountered over and over."
In Oregon, people actively serving a sentence for a felony conviction can't vote. But all others in the criminal justice system can, including people detained pre-trial, those serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions and people on parole or probation. Once someone's sentence for a felony conviction is completed, they can re-register to vote.
Most people incarcerated at the Multnomah County Detention Center and the Inverness Jail are eligible to vote.
Between 400 and 500 people are in the jails pre-trial on average, according to sheriff's office data. Those numbers don't capture people serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions, who also would be eligible to vote. The average total population of the jails in March was 780.
In 2018, Jarosh realized she had never seen a coordinated effort to register people to vote in the jails.
As a psychiatric nurse working in the jails for the county health department at the time, Jarosh said she repeatedly found people who felt like they didn't belong to a community outside the jail.
"I have not worked with a population that is more overlooked and more discounted," Jarosh said. "You internalize these things, that nobody cares about you."
Incarcerated people don't seek out voting information, she said, despite it being a way for them to maintain a connection their community.
Jarosh reached out to The Bus Project, a voting advocacy nonprofit, which is now called Next Up. Unable to enter the jails ahead of the May 2020 primary due to the pandemic, Jarosh and an intern from the nonprofit put together voting resources, including registration forms, to deliver to the facilities, she said.
Incarcerated people have been registering to vote and voting from the county's jails for years, said Tim Scott, the county's elections director. But it wasn't until 2020 that a concerted effort between community advocates, the elections division and sheriff's office staff coalesced to boost voting access there, he said.
"It was a confluence of a lot of different events that really kind of elevated this as something that needed to be tackled," Scott said.
The knowledge that people were spending more time in jail pre-trial because the court system dramatically slowed during the pandemic was a major motivator, he said. Another influential factor was a heightened awareness of social and racial justice issues in 2020, Scott said.
About 20% of people incarcerated at Multnomah County's jails are Black, sheriff's office data show, despite the group making up 7% of the county's overall population.
There were a lot of measures and races on the ballot in 2020 that resonated with incarcerated people, said Stephanie LaCarrubba, a programs unit manager at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, who helps coordinate voting access at the jails. Measure 110, LaCarrubba noted, was approved in November 2020. The measure decriminalized small amounts of illicit drugs in Oregon.
"Seeing people in custody as stakeholders in these issues, it's important that we include everybody that's eligible so that their voices can be heard," she said.
In 2020, the elections division launched a project called Ballots to the Jails. The project started with informational posters about voter eligibility and how to register in housing areas. It later expanded, with corrections counselors working with the elections division to provide information directly to incarcerated people.
One hundred fifteen ballots were counted from the jails during the November 2020 general election, compared to 32 in the May 2020 primary, county elections data shows. There were 193 people in the jails registered to vote in November 2020. Sixty people were registered in May 2020.
Voting dipped in the jails during the May 2021 special election, with 39 ballots being counted. But voter registrations stayed high at 170.
There were 182 incarcerated people in the jails registered to vote as of April 21.
The election on Tuesday, May 17, includes contested races for Multnomah County sheriff and chair of the board of commissioners.
The group of people working to make voting more accessible in the jails still have a lot of room to improve, Scott said.
County elections officials and Jarosh agree the biggest barrier to incarcerated people voting is a lack of education.
But there are structural barriers, too, said Jarosh, who did two registration drives at the Inverness Jail and three at the Multnomah County Detention Center ahead of the recent registration deadline.
While she can provide information to large groups of people housed in congregate dorms at the Inverness Jail, people at the Multnomah County Detention Center are housed in single cells. "It's like going door to door," she said.
Jarosh wants to see Multnomah County develop more clear and robust standard procedures to ensuring voting rights in jails. "Something to make sure a process exists into the future" is necessary, she said.
Additionally, multiple recent attempts to restore voting rights to people serving sentences for felony convictions through state legislation have failed.
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