Voter education and outreach in Multco includes those currently or previously incarcerated

October 7, 2020

With Election Day fast approaching, Multnomah County is making one final push to provide information and resources to anyone who is eligible to vote — including people formerly or currently involved in the justice system.

In partnership with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Multnomah County Elections staff have been working to help individuals currently held in jail for misdemeanors update their voter registrations and even vote from jail.

Voter education and outreach in Multco includes those currently or previously incarcerated

“We do have voters that are currently in jail that get their ballot through the mail and return it to us and are able to vote,” said Catherine McMullen, voter education and outreach specialist for Multnomah County Elections. “We want all eligible voters to be able to participate in the election process.”

McMullen shared that message Thursday, Oct. 1, when she joined Juneteenth Radio host Freeman X on KBOO-FM, as part of a county-wide initiative to discuss voting information and increase voter access for the Nov. 3, 2020 General Election. 

She emphasized the resources and rights that citizens have to vote, including those who are experiencing homelessness and those who have formerly been incarcerated on felony charges, letting them know that they also have the power to vote. 

“As soon as you have finished serving your time for a felony, you are eligible to re-register to vote and vote again,” said McMullen.

McMullen's outreach isn’t limited to media coverage — it includes virtual Question & Answer sessions with diverse community organizations, ranging from the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon to the Hull Foundation for the Blind, to the Girls Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington. She also works with community-based organizations, local government programs, teachers and community leaders.

Recently, through the Election Division's "Ballots to the Jails" project spearheaded by employee Heather Burmeister, McMullen connected with Eloise Holdship, a corrections counselor with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, whose helping see that project through by helping adults in custody register to vote.  

The program, which was limited at first by the pandemic, has since expanded from informational posters and monitors in housing units, to in-person voter registration sessions with corrections counselors.

Holdship also credits groups like Voting in Jails PDX, which recently mailed hundreds of registration forms to adults in custody, for “igniting much of the fire behind the movement.”

This work has been especially significant because, as Holdship found, almost none of the individuals she works with are aware of their voting rights. Holdship says she wasn’t aware of their rights, either — which is why she decided to launch the initiative.

“A lot of folks, once they are arrested and awaiting or serving a sanction, just sort of assume they are a person in custody and don’t have much choice in a lot of things,” she says.

Stephanie LaCarrubba, a programs unit manager at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, has supported the effort. She says it's important to increase voter turnout among incarcerated individuals who can be disproportionately impacted by many issues on the November ballot. 

Holdship agrees.

“These are individuals who will be returning to our society. They are part of our community. There is a large population in many states in America who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, many of whom are also from marginalized communities. They deserve to have a voice in voting — so to suddenly assume that because you’re incarcerated that voice is muted would be quite a shame,” she says.

There hasn’t been a coordinated effort quite like this during my tenure, said Tim Scott, director of Multnomah County Elections — a role he’s held for ten years. 

 “We’re glad to partner with the Sheriff’s Office on efforts like this.”

Though the goal of the initiative was to encourage incarcerated individuals to register for the Nov. 3 General Election, Holdship says she doesn’t expect voting rights awareness in Multnomah County jails to stop anytime soon.

“We want to keep it going from here on out,” she says. “Even if it’s in a month when there’s not even a local election, and the adult in custody requests to register, we’d be ready, and we could facilitate all of that.”

For more information on voting rights for incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals, visit the Multnomah County Elections website.