BELTON — A local congressional candidate is asking the Bell County sheriff to allow volunteers into the Bell County Jail to register inmates to vote.
Louie Minor, the Democratic candidate for the District 31 U.S. House seat, told the Herald he asked Bell County Sheriff Eddy Lange to let individuals from local organizations come into the jail and register inmates who qualify to vote.
“As long as you are not a convicted felon, you can vote,” said Minor, who is running against six-term incumbent U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. “A lot of people in the jail are either awaiting trial or are serving time for misdemeanor crimes. It’s a civil right.”
Texas law does allow individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes to vote, and those awaiting trial on felony charges are innocent until proven guilty, and their right to vote only gets stripped away after they are convicted. Felons can regain their right to vote once they have served their prison time and completed all probation and parole requirements.
Statewide, there does not appear to be a standard operating procedure governing who can and cannot hold voter registration drives in Texas county jails. Responding to requests for clarification from Minor, an official from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards indicated the ultimate decision rests with the county sheriffs themselves.
“The Texas Election Code is the prevailing statute, and it outlines the methods for which citizens may register to vote,” wrote Diana Spiller, TCJS research specialist. “These methods are also available to eligible inmates. The commission takes no position on this issue; therefore, the decision to conduct voter registration in county jails rests entirely with each sheriff.”
Minor said he did approach Lange’s office about the subject, but as of Friday, had not been given permission.
“He’s never told me no,” said Minor, who worked as a deputy constable under a previous Bell County sheriff. “But said he obviously had some concerns with security safety.”
Lt. Donnie Adams, a spokesman for the department, said there are already procedures in place that allow qualified inmates to register to vote.
“An inmate may request a voter registration form either by writing to the county or asking for one in an inmate request for service form,” Adams said. “Once their application is approved by (an) election administrator, a voter registration card will be mailed to the address provided by the inmate.”
Adams also indicted the need for the department to maintain safety at the jail.
“We must maintain security in the jail at all times,” Adams said. “We cannot allow anyone to come in to solicit inmates for whatever good cause.”
Minor said he was still concerned many inmates in the jail who are qualified to register to vote still won’t get a chance.
The deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 4 midterm elections is Oct. 6. Anyone mailing in a voter registration card must do so 30 days before the election, meaning time is running out for qualified Bell County inmates who have yet to request a form to register.
“They (could be) out of luck,” Minor said.
If inmates were to register to vote by a deputy registrar inside the jail, they would qualify to vote immediately.
Speaking Friday, Minor said his concern was not just for the inmates in the Bell County Jail, but the problem extends throughout the state, where county sheriffs were essentially the sole arbiters of who can and cannot enter their jails.
“This is something that can impact the entire state,” Minor said. “There’s no standard operating procedure that addresses this issue right now.”