Charleston County Jail webref(copy) (copy)

The Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center on Leeds Avenue in North Charleston. File/Staff

Charleston election advocates always cast a wide net to find voters. But it's a little-known fact inmates at the county jail are included, too.

At least 13 prisoners submitted absentee ballots in bulk this month, while an unknown number of others may have mailed theirs in individually to be tabulated with the rest of the turnout.

No telling who they voted for.

The jailhouse recruiting was promoted this year by county Elections Director Joe Debney, who called it part of the office's outreach program in a county with historically poor voter participation. 

The target audience included inmates accused of a crime but not yet convicted — those innocent-until-proven guilty detainees unable to make bail, awaiting trial.

"If we're not going to every person, to everyone who has the potential to register and vote, we're not doing our job correctly," said Debney, who's been Charleston's director of elections since 2011.

At last count, there were close to 1,200 inmates at the Al Cannon Detention Center on Leeds Avenue in North Charleston. Collectively, if all of these men and women were qualified voters, their would amount to a pretty significant voting precinct in the civilian world.

While felons voting from Big House prisons is banned in most states (Vermont and Maine being the exceptions), other jurisdictions do allow it for some of those simply being held in local county lockups. When California backed the idea a few years back, supporters said it would help prisoners transition back into society and lift away a burden of discrimination in voting rights.

Opponents, however, said the idea undermines the integrity of an election, creating the chance that jailhouse inmates could actually decide the outcome of a close race.

Think how that would look in states where voters elect judges? Or how it may affect races in South Carolina, where sheriffs — a county's top law enforcement officer — are popularly elected?

Charleston County's chief jail-keeper, Republican Sheriff Al Cannon, wasn't on the ballot this year, but South Carolina has 46 counties, along with jails of different shapes and sizes housing inmates charged with all types of crimes and awaiting trial.

Though the Charleston in-jail registration effort is not new this year, the recent push included an in-house video featuring Debney informing those inside how to sign up. 

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The Sheriff's Office is 100 percent behind it.

"We want to see people exercise their rights," Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas said.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said he knew of no other counties with similar jail initiatives, though there are nonprofits and other individuals who back it.

Debney doesn't have an explanation for why the Charleston jail registration campaign wasn't more fruitful. Political news and headlines are available on the inside from a several sources, including TV, radio and newspapers.

Maybe the governor's race between Republican Henry McMaster and Democrat James Smith was too dull to bother, particularly if a voter knows he or she may face 30 years or more behind bars.

Then there's the chance some in the jail are reoffenders. Under state law, someone convicted of a felony loses their right to vote while they are behind bars or on parole. That right is returned once their prison time, probation or parole is over and any restitution is finished. But first, they have to re-register.

Debney wants to keep building on the effort for the 2020 election season when there's a potentially interesting candidate on the horizon: A pardon-friendly President Donald Trump (see Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio) seeking a second term.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.