Election Day is coming up, and it is time that we take a closer look at what is often referred to as the “cornerstone of our democracy” – voting. The ACLU of Ohio believes that “democracy is strongest when it includes us all,” and by that measure – we have some work to do. One place where we can start is by ensuring that all eligible voters are able to cast their ballot. This includes people who are detained in our county jails.
On any given day in Ohio, 12,000 people are held pretrial.
There is a common misconception that people who are incarcerated cannot vote. However, only people who are incarcerated for a felony conviction are unable to vote. Individuals serving probation or parole, convicted of a misdemeanor offense, or awaiting trial remain eligible to vote in Ohio. Therefore, since most of the jail population is composed of people who are awaiting trial, most people in our county jails have the right to vote. Yet, they are not voting. Why?
One reason is a lack of accessibility. Information about voting in jail is usually limited or outright unavailable. Moreover, many people who are detained in Ohio’s county jails do not know they are still eligible to vote, and in many cases, jail administrators and even some election officials are unaware that people in jail can vote.
The other reason is the lack of infrastructure for and commitment to jail-based voting. Most jails and boards of elections do not have policies and procedures to ensure that eligible incarcerated voters are able to register to vote and cast their ballot.
Due to the lack of internet access and their incarcerated status, people in jail must register to vote using paper forms and have to mail absentee ballot applications. Access to these forms is often dependent on whether the jail administration provides them or allows community volunteers to enter the facility to provide them. If jail administrators do not offer access to these forms or volunteers, it is nearly impossible for eligible incarcerated voters to participate in the electoral process.
Obtaining the forms is just the initial barrier. Issues ranging from lack of voter identification to mail processing delays also prevent eligible incarcerated voters from casting their ballot. Moreover, people who are incarcerated often do not have sufficient information about candidates or ballot issues and struggle to make an informed decision,
These constant challenges and barriers to voting can create feelings of apathy among eligible incarcerated voters. Not only are they incarcerated, separated from their loved ones, and in the middle of a criminal case – they must also fight to make their voices count in a world that has seemingly counted them out already. Eventually, some people just give up and stop trying to vote altogether.
For a practice that is a “cornerstone of our democracy,” we should never make it so difficult that people choose not to participate. As a constitutional right, voting should be accessible, secure, and fair for all eligible Ohioans regardless of their circumstances. The consistent lack of access to the ballot for eligible incarcerated voters is a civil rights issue. Given that Black people are 12% of the population in the State of Ohio, but 34% of the jail population, jail-based voting is also a racial justice issue. As boards of elections and jails consistently fail to facilitate jail-based voting, they are significantly diluting the voices of Black voters in this state.
Creating a Path Forward for Eligible Incarcerated Voters
There are several ways Ohio can ensure access to the ballot for eligible incarcerated voters. Below are two immediate steps that counties can take to facilitate jail-based voting:
- County jail and county boards of elections can develop formal policies and procedures for jail-based voting;
- County jails can allow trained and nonpartisan volunteers access into jails on a consistent basis to provide voter registration forms, absentee ballot applications, and voter education.
There has also been a push to expand jail-based voting across the country, so Ohio can look to other localities for best practices. Some strategies have included making the local jail a polling location, designating the jail as voter registration agency, or requiring jails to provide voter education.
We recognize that none of these approaches are one-size fits all, and counties may need to adjust based on their resources and capacity. Nonetheless, there needs to be a commitment to expand and guarantee ballot access to eligible incarcerated voters that prioritizes voter education and engagement. The ACLU is committed to making our democracy as strong as it can be and that starts with ensuring that every eligible voter is able to participate.