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In the Jailhouse now

Commissioner revives push to get voter-registration groups into the county slammer

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Absent political support from her peers, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Valerie Woodard is keeping alive her quest to register voters inside the county jail. "I'm a big believer in helping the less fortunate," Woodard said.

Since her election in 2002, Woodard has advocated allowing voter-registration groups to talk to eligible Mecklenburg County jail inmates and help them complete their registration forms. But she quickly sensed she didn't have the support, so she didn't press the issue. Still, her views have made an impression -- mention her name with the word "voting" and you'll likely elicit a strong reaction from the person on the other end of the phone.

"Oh, good gosh," said Commissioner Norman Mitchell, who, like Woodard, is a Democrat. "If Commissioner Woodard still thinks she can go in there and register voters -- I mean register inmates -- that is not going to happen."

In North Carolina, people in jail awaiting trials or serving sentences for misdemeanor offenses are as eligible to vote as anyone else. Only felons in prison, on probation or on parole are barred from voting, and even they may register to vote once they've paid their societal debt.

But many jail inmates and ex-felons are not aware of their rights. And that's where voting-rights advocates such as Woodard enter the picture. She and others who have approached commissioners on the issue see an erosion of political rights within the criminal justice system. Adam Sotak, an organizer with Democracy North Carolina, estimates that some 70,000 ex-felons in the state are eligible to vote but may not know it. "There are a lot of myths out there," Sotak said. "People say, 'I can't vote. I have a felony. They think they have to wait seven years.'"

County jail is one place where advocates like Sotak can begin the process of educating inmates, many of whom are eligible to vote because they're either misdemeanor offenders or people awaiting trial. Sotak has been present in meetings with Woodard and jail representatives. "What we have found is that the more proactive we can be with this type thing, whether you're registering somebody in jail or on the street, the better, because you're able to talk to them and explain things to them," Sotak said.

Woodard said she wants the county commission to ask Sheriff Jim Pendergraph to let outside civic, religious and advocacy groups into the jail to register voters. She acknowledged she has gotten "nowhere fast" in previous attempts, drawing criticism from predictable opponents such as Bill James, but also getting silence and disapproval from fellow Democrats such as Mitchell.

Woodard maintains that even though commissioners don't control the jails, "they are in charge of funding it."

Mitchell's response? "That's crazy. I would never try to hamper the sheriff."

Woodard claimed even Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, one of the board's more liberal members, has kept her distance from the issue. Not true, according to Roberts. "She may be thinking that, just because I haven't put as much of an emphasis on it," said Roberts.

The American Civil Liberties Union in September published a guide for activists who want to help eligible incarcerated people register and vote. The 72-page document points out that there's "a misconception on the part of some jail officials and local election authorities that people detained in jail cannot vote, and there are few programs that make it possible for detainees to exercise their right to do so."

It's important and beneficial, Woodard said, for inmates to be exposed to and participate in civic life. "They aren't convicted," she said. "They should have every opportunity to vote."

Julia Rush, spokeswoman for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, said jail inmates already have that opportunity. The jail's orientations, at 7am and 7pm daily, include information on registering and requesting absentee ballots. Any of the more than 2,200 inmates the jail averages daily may vote if they are eligible, Rush said. "We've gone to great length to accommodate Commissioner Woodard," Rush said.

Woodard disagrees. "The sheriff says when they ask, they get it," said Woodard. "To me, that's no different than, 'Don't ask, don't tell.'"

Rush said the jail doesn't allow outside groups to register voters because of security concerns. Anyone who interacts with inmates must undergo a background check. The policy is similar to that of Wake County, which also doesn't allow outside groups inside the jail to register people. There, according to Wake County Sheriffs Office spokesperson Phyllis Stephens, inmates receive a handbook with information on asking for absentee ballots.

By contrast, Guilford County allows groups into its jail as long as those groups pay for their own background checks, said Guilford County Sheriffs Office spokesperson Arch Embler. "We just insist there's no cost to the county," Embler said.

Last election, the NAACP registered inmates in Guilford, but Embler estimated it probably didn't result in many ballots cast; most inmates registered were long gone by election day. "We have a tremendous amount of turnover," Embler said.

Myra Clark, executive director of Energy Committed to Offenders, a group that helps ex-offenders and their families, said she understands the Mecklenburg County Sheriffs Office's security concerns. Clark, who favors making voting accessible for inmates, said she's heard some people say voter registration forms can be difficult for some people to understand. Clark said she did not know the jail offered inmates information about voting. "I'm glad that they're including that in their orientation," she said.

Access to the ballot among another group drew local attention last fall when Commissioner Bill James successfully challenged the registrations of more than 300 homeless people who listed the Urban Ministry Center as their residence. State law requires people to list their actual residence -- even if that means drawing a map to an underpass. Woodard predicts her cause won't go away. She and others facing re-election may file for the November ballot starting Feb. 13 at noon. "No doubt, under a new board I'll try again," she said.

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