This toolkit provides instructions and sample materials for you to start a jail voting program in your county. It will help you with the following:
- Forming relationships with your county Board of Elections and local jails
- Identifying who is eligible to vote
- Registering voters
- Recruiting and keeping volunteers
First Steps: Forming Relationships with BOEs, Jail Officials & Volunteers
There are three groups who must be on board before launching a successful jail voting initiative: the local board of elections, jail officials and a reliable group of volunteers.
Boards of Elections (BOE)
In each of Ohio’s 88 counties a Board of Elections is responsible for administering local elections, including voter registration, maintaining an election calendar, overseeing absentee voting and managing polling locations within its county.
Jail officials include sheriffs, directors of corrections and other administrators. You may also wish to enlist the help of jail funding authorities, such as a local mayor, county commissioners, municipal councils and tribal governments. In addition to leveraging your local elected officials, social workers or public defenders can be important allies in helping you establish a relationship with jail administrators. They are familiar with the inner workings of the jail and can also inform you of jail procedures that may already be in place to register incarcerated voters.
Volunteers are a group of individuals who will work with you to complete the jail voting initiative including registering voters, checking voter registration forms, liaising with jail or election officials, and serving in a variety of other roles.
Common Questions about Your Local BOE:
In advance of entering the jail, you can ask the Sheriff or Warden to compile a list of individuals who are pre-trial detainees, are incarcerated for a misdemeanor, or awaiting release in the coming days and weeks. This will enable you to identify which detainees are eligible to register to vote and move more efficiently in the jail.
What is the BOE’s role in a jail voting campaign?
Every BOE must follow state guidelines for delivering and receiving absentee ballots from individuals in jail. Whether BOE officials already have their own jail voting initiative will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Some counties organize a time before every election to oversee jail voting, while others will only visit a jail if a detainee has specifically requested a ballot. Every in-person absentee ballot submitted by an incarcerated voter must be collected by two BOE officials, one each from the two major political parties.
How do I find my BOE?
The telephone number, address and website for each BOE is listed on the Secretary of State’s website. It is best to schedule a time to meet with a BOE official. Your goal is to be friendly and helpful.
Questions for my County BOE official
- What is the BOE’s current procedures for entering into jails and delivering ballots? Are these procedures consistent with the Secretary of State’s guidelines?
- Do you have a current relationship with the jail administrator to register voters?
- Does the BOE have a set date they will deliver the ballots to the jail? How soon before each election?
- If people fill out requests for absentee ballots at the same time as they register, will you hold their absentee ballot requests until their registrations are processed and they are on the voter rolls? If so, how long should that take?
- How are omissions on voter registration forms rectified?
- What constitutes acceptable proof of identity?
- How will the BOE deal with a detained individual who cannot produce acceptable identification?
- Can individuals who are incarcerated use an absentee ballot if they are detained in another county?
- What does the absentee ballot packet contain? Are there materials included in the packet that will not be admitted into the jail?
Common Questions about your Local Jail Officials:
In advance of entering the jail, you can ask the Sheriff or Warden to compile a list of individuals who are pre-trial detainees, on the misdemeanant list, or awaiting release in the coming days and weeks. This will enable you to identify which detainees are eligible to register to vote and move more efficiently in the jail.
How do I approach my local jail officials?
Always be respectful and professional and take their security concerns seriously. Realize that you might have to educate them about the voting rights of someone being detained. If you or your colleagues already have a relationship with an official, use that relationship to facilitate a conversation about jail voting.
What is the role of the jail warden versus corrections officers?
The jail’s warden is responsible for the overall safety and security of the facility that they manage. The supervisory duties of a warden involves managing staff at all institutional levels, making decisions regarding hiring, training, promotion, discipline, evaluation and firing of staff. Corrections officers follow the command of the jail warden and also ensure the safety of all prisoners, visitors and volunteers in the jail.
Questions for jail officials:
- What voting assistance do you currently provide your detainees? Do you include voter information in your detainee handbook?
- Do you have an arrangement with the county BOE to register voters and assist them with casting their ballot? If so, may we assist BOE officials with these processes?
- If no protocol is in place, may we come into your jail to help conduct voter registration?
- Are volunteers required to complete a background check or volunteer training before entering the jail?
- What writing utensils are permitted in the jail?
- May we provide stamps and envelopes to those who wish to mail their voter registration materials?
- Is any part of the absentee ballot packet (e.g., staples, paperclips) not allowed in the jail? How might we work with you to create allowances or alternatives?
Volunteer Recruitment and Management
A successful jail voter registration project will require a dedicated leader and a group of committed and reliable volunteers. Your team can be comprised of law students, lawyers, retirees, professionals, students, community members, social workers, corrections officers, public defenders and even county board officials.
If someone is eager to join your group but has no prior experience within a jail environment, you can still invite them to join your initiative.
Anyone participating in your initiative must be able to dedicate between two and three hours for each jail voter registration drive and meet the following criteria:
- Be at least 18 years old,
- Complete a training session organized by you or your coalition,
- Become familiar with the jail’s rules and procedures,
- Learn how to interview and interact with detainees; and
- Be comfortable in a jail environment.
Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers
Before recruiting dozens of volunteers, first identify how many detainees are being held in your county jail and may be eligible to vote on Election Day. Note that eligibility can change if an individual is awaiting trial and becomes convicted of or pleads guilty to a felony crime.
You can determine your volunteer needs once you decide how many detainees you hope to register for the upcoming election. This includes the amount of volunteers and whether you will require them to work on rotating days, weekends and evenings before the voter registration deadline.
Next, create a volunteer management plan. Your plan should outline clear objectives and strategies to support volunteer recruitment and retention. A few primary objectives for volunteer recruitment is determining what skills you will need to execute your project and how you will retain volunteers.
Volunteer retention will depend on your communication with volunteers, how frequently you respond to volunteer needs and requests, how well you delegate responsibilities, and most importantly, how you manage your project.
Volunteers respond negatively to disorganization and poor planning, and conversely, are attracted to responsive, thoughtful and caring leaders. Part of managing the volunteer experience is how well you train your team. Your project may be the first opportunity that many individuals will have to enter a jail; and therefore, you are in the unique position of shaping their limited understanding of how jails and prisons work.
Your training should layout your expectations of volunteers, provide an abbreviated but thorough understanding of why jail voting is important and provide resources to help your team work in a jail setting, particularly as they interact with detainees, corrections officers, wardens and other jail employees. Likewise, after volunteers have completed your training, you should check in periodically to assess their needs or ask their opinion about how the project can be improved through a volunteer survey. You can also incorporate a volunteer exit survey for understanding how you can make other improvements to the program. Lastly, asking volunteers to indicate their availability on the application will help you better organize your team’s schedule in the jail.
Volunteer Roles and Management
After outlining how you will recruit and retain volunteers in your volunteer management plan, you should include a description of each volunteer role and how you will communicate these needs during the training. Some volunteers will lead entire groups into the jail, while others may be exclusively committed to registration, data entry, communications, and social media.
Volunteer training opportunities should ideally be scheduled ten to twelve weeks before the voter registration deadline.
Volunteer leaders can be social workers or public defenders who are familiar with the jail, are comfortable leading groups of less experienced volunteers, and are able to troubleshoot any problems with the jail warden. Leaders should have the capability of delegating responsibilities within the group on the day of the project and setting volunteers into teams of two or three persons. They should also delegate who will check the registration forms for accuracy and completeness.
During your training, permit volunteers to take on roles that they are most comfortable with especially if they prefer a supporting role. Within a group setting, this could mean they complete the registration form while their partner engages with the detainee. They may also commit to taking over communications for the group and keeping everyone up-to-date about ongoing training opportunities or changes in scheduling or project needs.
Volunteer Background Checks & Training
All volunteers should complete an application and background check (For a sample volunteer application please see Sample Items for Recruiting Volunteers). Most jails will require volunteers to be thoroughly vetted before allowing your group to enter the jail and work with detainees.
This vetting process can take a week or more, so plan to contact your local jail early with a list of all volunteers and their information. Following a review of all volunteer applications, you should provide a training session for your group. Your training should include a description of the project’s goals, aims and purpose, a description of all volunteer roles and responsibilities, potential scheduling for registration drives and a general question and answer session. You may also want to provide a PowerPoint, a summary of Ohio’s election laws and the jail’s policies in a volunteer handbook or training manual.
Volunteers Website (Optional)
Volunteers should be able to access all handouts, training materials, and project-related materials through an online access point.
The website should also provide a description of the initiative, list the dates of your registration drive(s), clearly outline the number of volunteers you need, and include all volunteer nondisclosure forms required by the county jail. While designing a website may seem daunting, you may consider creating a closed social media group or starting an e-mail list where a select group of recipients receive information about your training dates and volunteer opportunities. Alternatively, you can work with your team to decide the best method for managing a volunteer database and disseminating information.
Engaging Volunteers’ Fears About Jail
Volunteers may be apprehensive to work with incarcerated individuals because of the stigmas associated with jail. To alleviate these fears and motivate volunteers to participate in the project, you should provide a training segment that addresses the most common misconceptions about incarceration and why encouraging detainees to vote will decrease their chances of recidivating.
In addition you can challenge volunteers’ personal biases by having them role play scenarios, engaging in an open discussion about their reservations with the project or their primary motivations for volunteering.
You should also develop a purpose statement which explains why registering detained voters will reduce barriers they face while trying to vote. This statement should include the vision for your project and your long-term goal of registering all eligible voters within your county jail. Once volunteers understand the project’s purpose they will have less apprehension about participating and will solidify their commitment to your goal.
DISCLAIMER – The information on this website is not, nor is it intended to be, an exhaustive overview of Ohio’s voting laws. Before beginning any jail voting initiative please review the Ohio Revised Code or the Ohio Secretary of State’s website at vote.ohio.gov. If you have been disenfranchised and you need legal help, please submit a compliant for review on our Legal Help page.