SPOKANE — The Spokane County commissioners oppose an effort that uses state funds to improve voter turnout among jail inmates, but the project is moving forward anyway.
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton last week told the commissioners she wanted to apply for a grant that would allow her office to educate inmates on how to register to vote and cast a ballot.
The grant wouldn't cost Spokane County anything. The Washington Legislature in 2022 set aside $2.5 million to support voter registration and voting within county jails. Counties throughout the state are using the funds to raise inmate turnout. The Washington Secretary of State's Office by Feb. 1 will write a report for the Legislature that outlines best practices for increasing voter registration and participation in jails.
With a few exceptions, people locked in Spokane County's two detention facilities have the right to vote. Washington only takes away that right for inmates actively serving felony sentences in state, federal or out-of-state prisons.
Statistics on turnout among the Spokane County jail population don't exist, Dalton said. But turnout among detainees throughout the state is generally low. Inmates often don't know they have the right to vote.
Dalton said state grant dollars would pay for educational posters and videos, developed with the help of formerly incarcerated Spokane County residents. The materials would be placed in the Spokane County Jail and Geiger Corrections Center and include basic information on how to register, cast a ballot and mark a ballot. They wouldn't contain any partisan language.
Mike Sparber, the county's senior director of law and justice, said in a Sept. 6 commission meeting that Dalton's proposal wouldn't be burdensome for jail staff. Dalton said it wouldn't take up much of her employees' time either.
But Spokane County commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French weren't enthusiastic about the idea, even though it'd be easy to implement and the state would pay for it.
"I don't like it," Kerns said.
Kerns and French didn't explain in detail why they dislike the idea of improving inmate turnout and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
However, French noted that inmates may be less likely to vote for some politicians than others.
"If you're a candidate that's campaigning on a position of being tough on crime, obviously you're not going to get a lot of votes out of the jail," he said. "And the inverse of that would also apply."
All three county commissioners and Dalton are running for re-election. The commissioners are Republicans while Dalton is the county's only elected Democrat.
Kerns questioned why it was necessary to improve voting access for inmates. He noted that the average length of stay in the Spokane County Jail is about 17 days.
"In theory, if somebody is in there the average amount of time, they would still have time to go home and get their ballot once they're released, right?" he asked Dalton.
"Not if they're in jail," Dalton said.
County commissioner Mary Kuney, who was out of town Sept. 6 on county business, said she hasn't taken a position on the issue. She pointed out that a majority of the three commissioners had already opposed the idea, so she didn't feel a need to weigh in.
French and Kerns' stand may end up being symbolic.
"Not getting this grant, bottom line, doesn't matter," Dalton said in an interview. "We'll still get what we need."
She explained that she can still apply for a portion of the $2.5 million without the commissioners' approval. French and Kerns' resistance will effectively block the auditor's office and detention services from using the money for payroll expenses. The grant funding can still pay for educational posters and videos.
Criminal justice reform advocates still criticized Kerns and French, even though the project is moving forward.
Kurtis Robinson, executive director of I Did the Time and vice president of the Spokane NAACP, said that while inmates can technically vote while in jail, the process ends up being "ridiculously hard."
Spokane County detentions staff in the run-up to elections ask inmates who are registered to vote and haven't voted if they'd like to ceireve a ballot. Inmates can request voter registration forms through the commissary. Dalton said only a handful of inmates typically request ballots in a given election.
Robinson, who was formerly incarcerated, also accused French and Kerns of acting in a way that "furthers the injustices that have occurred here in our local criminal justice system."
"When they could be doing the greatest good for everyone, they continue to do and lean towards things that benefit themselves and the people they consider worthy and they consider human," he said.
Megan Pirie, co-founder of the Eastern Washington chapter of All of Us or None, had harsh words for the commissioners, too. All of Us or None is an organization that advocates for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Pirie emphasized that most people in the Spokane County Jail are awaiting trial and haven't been convicted. Being in jail shouldn't inhibit their ability to vote, she said. She also said that by resisting an effort to educate inmates, Kerns and French are disproportionately restricting the voting rights of people of color.
As of Aug. 31, 854 people were incarcerated in the Spokane County Jail. Of those 854, 116 (14%) were Black. Black people make up 2% of Spokane County's population according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Dalton said it's her job to help people vote.
"My responsibility as an elected official in charge of elections administration is to ensure that every citizen who meets the qualifications to register and to cast a ballot has that opportunity, wherever that individual may be," she said. "I will serve every one of those individuals."