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Jackson County sheriff won't let voter registration groups inside jail, citing a law that doesn't exist

MORE2 held a demonstration outside the jail on Sept. 27, two weeks after organizers initially contacted the sheriff. Advocates are asking the sheriff to allow voter registration groups to talk directly with detainees.
Courtesy Photo
The Kansas City Beacon
MORE2 held a demonstration outside the jail on Sept. 27, two weeks after organizers initially contacted the sheriff. Advocates are asking the sheriff to allow voter registration groups to talk directly with detainees.

Sheriff Darryl Forté has pointed to a nonexistent provision in Missouri's new voting law to limit voter registration efforts inside the Jackson County jail, where hundreds of detainees are potentially eligible voters. Missouri's voter registration deadline is Oct. 12.

Social justice and voting rights groups in Kansas City have been calling on Sheriff Darryl Forté to allow voter registration activities inside the Jackson County jail for several weeks. But as Missouri’s Oct. 12 deadline to register to vote approaches, Forté’s stance has left advocates confused and frustrated.

Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2), the organization trying to set up voter registration at the jail, said the sheriff’s office has not cooperated with its attempts to bring registration groups to the detainees.

“We’ve been waiting to hear back from the sheriff’s office to explain to us what the protocol is, and if there’s not a system in place, we want to work together to ensure there is one before Oct. 12,” MORE2 leader Christine McDonald said last week.

In an interview with The Beacon, Forté said the jail has registered 45 individuals to vote in the Nov. 8 election. MORE2 estimates that about 400 detainees would be eligible to vote in Jackson County jail in this election if registered, but that many of these people may not know they are eligible to vote.

'Let our people vote'

MORE2 initially reached out to the sheriff’s office the week of Sept. 12 to set up a day for voter registration groups to come into the jail to provide information to detainees and get them registered to vote. But after two weeks with no response, MORE2 held a demonstration in front of the Jackson County jail on Sept. 27, with members of the group chanting “Let our people vote.”

The sheriff responded on Oct. 3 with an email that said, “Inmates at the JCDC are being allowed to register. Not certain who might be distributing inaccurate information.”

When MORE2 followed up, asking again if it could facilitate a voter registration drive inside the jail with local voter registration groups, Forté responded, “I appreciate your desire to assist. We already have adequate resources to handle registration.”

McDonald and other MORE2 leaders remained skeptical.

“Now we’re being told there is a process in place. We’ve asked, OK, explain it to us … And they still will not tell us,” McDonald said. “Another thing we’re not getting any comment on is how many people they have registered to vote.”

MORE2 still had no answer on Oct. 7, less than a week before the voter registration deadline.

The current Jackson County Detention Center in downtown Kansas City.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
The current Jackson County Detention Center in downtown Kansas City.

Forté cites a nonexistent legal provision to limit registrations

When The Beacon reached Forté for an interview on Oct. 10, he said the jail staff had registered 45 voters among the detained residents. Forté said that these were the only detainees who were interested in registering to vote in Jackson County jail.

“We have a closed system in the jail. We don’t invite everybody in,” Forté said. “And we only have fewer than 50 people who want to register.”

Out of Jackson County jail’s 2019 daily average population of 872 inmates, roughly 80%, or about 700 detainees, are awaiting trial and therefore presumed innocent, according to the jail’s website. Based on conversations with law enforcement, MORE2 assumed that roughly 300 are still on parole or probation for a previous conviction and therefore ineligible to vote.

That left their estimate at 400 detainees who are eligible to vote in Jackson County jail. Calvin Williford, a community organizer at MORE2, called that number a “conservative extrapolation.”

The sheriff could not confirm the accuracy of this estimate.

Forté said the jail is only allowed to register 50 voters according to a provision in Missouri’s new voting law that took effect Aug. 28. According to several sources, this provision does not exist.

“The new law won’t let you register more than 50 (people) in any election cycle,” Forté said. “We have a registrar at the jail, and I was advised that they can’t register — and again, it’s not for a detention center, but that’s any organization — you can’t register more than 50 during an election cycle.”

He said that the jail is limited to 50 people, regardless of whether any outside groups volunteer to assist.

The Beacon asked the Kansas City Election Board (KCEB) about the provision that the sheriff cited, and Democratic director Lauri Ealom said that she was not aware of any restriction like the one Forté described. Neither were League of Women Voters of Kansas City (LWVKC) President Anne Calvert or Williford from MORE2.

Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said the 50-person restriction does not exist. The Missouri Voter Protection Coalition is currently challenging the state’s new voter law in court alongside the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I’ve read that bill dozens and dozens of times,” Lieberman said. “I am living, breathing and sleeping that bill every single day of my life right now. And I can tell you, I have not seen anything that would in any way limit the total number of people that can be registered (in a jail).”

When informed of this, the sheriff clarified that the jail is only provided 50 application cards by the KCEB, and if the jail’s registrar needs more, they must request them from the secretary of state. However, if voter registration groups like LWVKC or the NAACP register detainees to vote in Jackson County jail, they would bring their own application cards.

With no legal explanation limiting their ability to register additional voters, advocates are left wondering why they were not allowed to organize a voter drive at the jail.

“One of the great challenges here and frustrations is the lack of transparency,” Williford said. “One of the great things about schools is that there are parent teacher associations that have access to schools and can look behind the walls to see what goes on. In jails and prisons, we have wardens and sheriffs that consistently don’t provide access. So the public doesn’t know what truly is going on.”

People in the criminal justice system often wrongly assume they can’t vote

Forté said that registering voters at the jail is a short process.

“First, they’re asked if they are eligible and they want to participate. And then they fill out an application in front of our registrar, and we submit those to the election board,” he said.

But advocates say the process is sometimes more complicated for people with a criminal history.

“I, myself, as someone who has felony convictions, I didn’t know that I had the right to vote, nor did I know I was eligible to vote,” McDonald said. “I, just like many, many other thousands of Missourians that are convicted felons, just assume we can’t vote.”

In Missouri, people with felony convictions regain their right to vote once they complete their sentences and are no longer under supervision. McDonald said that participating in elections is an important step in preventing recidivism.

“The data tells us that when individuals involved with criminal pasts (vote), they’re more invested in their community and their chances of recommitting a crime lessen because they’re invested in their community,” McDonald said.

Calvert said that if the sheriff needs assistance registering voters, LWVKC is happy to help. “Yes, I would personally go,” she said.

With less than 48 hours left before the voter registration deadline, MORE2 was continuing to urge the sheriff to allow voter groups such as LWVKC or the NAACP to enter the jail to provide information and register eligible voters.

“We hear that the sheriff says that he’s registered 45 people because no one else was interested, but there is an absolute belief that if people know about their right to vote, they’re going to engage in that registration process,” Williford said. “That lack of transparency and openness fuels this level of distrust, and of course, helps to suppress the vote.”

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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