AB 544 improves access for people detained at a county jail to exercise their rights to register to vote and vote in elections.
This is in conjunction with the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4 that will return the right to vote to everyone in state and federal prisons in California with polling places available in detaining centers starting in November 2024.
With both bills introduced by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), there are other inclusions that would be implemented when passed:
- Requires county elections officials to coordinate with county sheriffs or jail facility coordinators to design and implement a program to establish a polling location at each county jail facility.
- Requires a voting coordinator at each county jail facility to ensure voter registration forms and nonpartisan voter educational materials are updated, posted, and available to incarcerated persons.
- Allows in-person, nonpartisan voter educational and informational sessions in jail facilities about voter eligibility requirements, deadlines, and steps to register to vote and vote.
- Requires the county sheriff or jail facility administrator to develop policies and procedures that ensure voter registration forms are timely submitted and the secrecy of the ballot is protected.
Currently, state allow permits those held in prison including voters who are held pre-trial for lack of bail or held post-sentence due to a probation or parole violation, to register and vote.
Though, the poor efforts of voter outreach and education in constitutional rights provided by local election officials and county jail administrators creates a gap in civic engagement, necessary for properly serving the incarcerated community.
While there is ongoing action for introducing to vote by mail (VBM) voting, jail-based voter programs that heavily rely on the mail-in method tend to have little participation, due to the lack of training in voter laws or voter support from county elections officials.
According to the Northern California Innocence Project, “There are models of voter engagement in California and in other states that have increased voter participation among those held in local jails, providing safe, secure elections and improved access for incarcerated persons.
For example, the Los Angeles (LA) County RegistrarRecorder/County Clerk, in collaboration with the LA County Sheriff's Department, used mobile vote centers to register 1,700 people at two jail facilities during the 2020 statewide general election.”
NCIP continues on to say that, “Also during the 2020 statewide general election, Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois successfully established its first jail-based in-person polling location. Due to those efforts, more than 2,000 of the 5,400 incarcerated in jail (about 37% of the jail's population) cast a ballot. Before polling stations were established in jail, voter turnout via mail-in ballots was less than 7% of the incarcerated population. By contrast, the first year that polling stations were introduced inside, voter turnout increased to 37% – a higher rate than registered voters in the City of Chicago.”
The voter disenfranchisement of BIPOC Californians has extensively ran through the state's history from poll taxes to literacy tests to other tactics used against Black people in “Jim Crow” states.
These systemic barriers still exist today, and excluding thousands of impacted individuals out of our elections and overall democratic system in voting is unconstitutional.
This bill has now been amended. Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Pillars of the Community are co-sponsors for AB 544.