'Still a citizen': Michigan clerks, activists reach 'forgotten' voters in county jails

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Over the last six years, the Detroit branch of the NAACP has registered roughly 1,000 voters in an unlikely place: Wayne County Jail.

"Inmates are a forgotten class of voters," said Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit office. "But they're still a citizen, still a whole person. Locked up doesn't mean locked out."

NAACP Detroit president Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony.

For decades, the civil rights organization has urged people to "get their souls to the polls."

In the context of a county jail, the polls have to be brought to the souls, via absentee voting. 

People who are jailed but haven't yet had their day in court are eligible to vote, but Anthony said they're often unaware of the right and don't ask to exercise it. Roughly 60% of Wayne County Jail inmates are being held pre-trial.

"They might be in the jail," Anthony said, "but the jail doesn't have to be in them. This is an untapped community of people who need to be in on the process."

The outreach effort started in 2014, and has accounted for about 10 percent of the 10,000 voters the Detroit NAACP has registered in that time. Sheriff Benny Napoleon said he welcomes the NAACP in.

Anthony said many of the inmates the NAACP registers have never voted before. 

"You're going to be a better inmate when you feel like a whole citizen," Anthony said.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, left, and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said her office does in-person outreach at the Detroit-based facilities of the county jail and has for more than a decade. In the Nov. 2016 presidential election, some 200 inmates awaiting trial exercised their voting rights.

"(Jail administration) pulls the populations that are interested. We take voter registration forms with us because the population is transient, and people move around, and we just want to make sure they are Detroiters. So we depend on the jail administrators to provide us with that information," Winfrey said. "And then we go back and do our due diligence once they fill out the application."

When residents of other communities request ballots, the clerks office refers that information to its counterparts, Winfrey said. 

Winfrey and Anthony echoed that the efforts are non-partisan.

"We don't care who you vote for, just that you vote," Winfrey said. 

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said the issue of voting at the county jail hasn't come up in his three decades with the department. Macomb County Jail has an average daily population of 900, and 60% of it is being held pre-trial.

"The majority of these inmates are here pretrial, and they're not here for a very long time," Wickersham said. "We've never really discussed this before."

If inmate requested or was mailed an absentee ballot, it would be delivered, he said. 

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, left, and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

"Nobody can recall seeing an absentee ballot come in through the mail," Wickersham said. "We haven't done anything like (outreach) or any education. It's something we would hope they would be educated about through their legal counsel."

Mark Hackel, Macomb's sheriff before Wickersham and now its county executive, said the same.

"Nobody ever requested or asked for a ballot to vote," said Hackel, who started at the sheriff's office in 1981 and was elected sheriff in 2000. He was elected three terms, but resigned in 2010 to run to become the first Macomb County Executive. "It's never been brought up, where somebody in the jail said, 'Hey, you know, I get arrested the night before voting, what do I do?' I think they're more worried about things other than voting."

About 40 percent of Oakland County Jail's 1,300 inmates are being held pre-trial, said Major Christopher Wundrach, of the Oakland County Sheriff's Office. 

The jail posts a know-your-rights poster in the jail's housing units, and facilitates the mailing of registrations, ballot requests, and completed ballots with clerks in the county. No hard numbers were available on how many inmates do vote, Wundrach said.

Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist for the ACLU of Michigan, says another forgotten group of potential voters is felons who have served their time and are no longer incarcerated. 

A board at the program/education wing of the Ingham County Jail keeps inmates informed on the candidates running for president. Ballot apps are available there too.

"The only folks who cannot vote in Michigan are folks who are in jail or prison serving a sentence," Dolente said. "If you don't have both of those in action, you're able to register and vote."

"If you're incarcerated and awaiting trail, that's absolutely not a barrier in our state," said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a former state lawmaker.

Byrum's office collaborates with the Ingham County Sheriff's Office to not only educate inmates held pre-trial of their right to vote, but to facilitate ballot access and allow for privacy as the vote is cast.  

"I work with the sheriff to make sure that they use the closed circuit TV, which plays during receiving, and in the lobby during visiting time, to remind residents of the county jail they have the opportunity to request an absentee ballot," Byrum said. 

"We don't set up a voting booth necessarily, but they're able to cast their vote privately," said Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth. "And it's not like our corrections deputies are leaning over their shoulder. They have a paper ballot and a utensil to fill out the ballot properly and then they seal it up.

"It's not a huge lift" for jail staff, he said.

Ingham County Jail inmates can receive absentee ballots using the Securus resource terminals in their dorms.

The clerk and the sheriff have been "actively" working with the sheriff's office to facilitate voting access since 2018, Byrum said. That November, 32 inmates voted by absentee ballot.

Reaching even that small number of voters was worthwhile, Byrum said.

"I'm an election administrator and my job is to reach out to all individuals who wish to exercise their right to vote," Byrum said. "It is my responsibility to break down any barriers that may exist. Voter participation is extraordinarily important."

Michigan votes in the presidential primary election on March 10. 

jdickson@detroitnews.com

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