Cuyahoga County and NOVA Help Inmates Vote

by Devyn Giannetti , Communications Specialist, Communications Department

Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates logoDue to misinformation and stigma, many people believe they cannot vote while they are in jail.

That is false! Cuyahoga County and Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates (NOVA) have been working hard this election season to help inmates understand their rights and make their voices heard.

The efforts began in June 2020 when County Councilman Dale Miller approached the Jail Administration about work that has been done previously to help inmates vote. Voting in the Cuyahoga County jail began in 2000 as an initiative of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries.

Associate Warden Jennifer Frame was then tasked with leading the inmate voting efforts.

In August, NOVA Vice President and representative Meredith Hellmer visited the Justice Center to train the Jail Administration and support staff on how to help inmates accurately fill out forms. NOVA aims to help underserved and underrepresented populations register to vote and help them get ballots while increasing civic participation.

To help with accessibility, the Jail Administration added a voter registration tab to the inmate kiosks so inmates could send their voter registration requests and/or absentee ballots in a structured manner. Jail staff kept these requests in a spreadsheet which helped them stay organized and also helped NOVA know who to schedule virtual visits with. This helped ensure each request was fulfilled and that no one who made a request missed out. Jail staff also made signs and posted them in all housing pods, so inmates knew about their accessibility and option to vote.

Once signage was posted and Jail Administration staff was trained, NOVA visited the Justice Center at the end of August to guide inmates through the proper way to fill out voter registration cards.

Registration cards were delivered to inmates by Jail staff with instructions and completed cards could be turned in at each pod. NOVA representatives would then pick up the cards and deliver them to the Board of Elections (BOE) for processing.

For those who requested absentee ballots, the Jail Administration visited all inmates and ensured they filled out the request form correctly and that the forms were then given to the BOE to ensure the inmates were eligible to vote.

Once the Jail Administration was given the ballots, they were handed out to inmates who had requested them.

Meredith Hellmer has helped coordinate voter registration in the Cuyahoga County jail since 2006. She says that in the system she comes across a wide spectrum of voters.

“Some people are registered and vote in every election,” Hellmer said. “Others are brand new to voting. A voter asked me what a ballot is. I was glad he asked so he could better understand what I was talking about.”

Through these efforts to educate inmates on their right to vote and assistance through the voting process, the County Jail had roughly 115 inmates who participated in voting for the 2020 election.

NOVA has found that contact with incarcerated voters is vital to ensuring inmates get registered and votes are cast. Many working and retired lawyers, social workers and County public defenders volunteer their time and are consistent and hardworking volunteers.

Voting is one of the surefire ways for residents to make their voices heard. Registering individuals in jail to vote and helping them cast a ballot is an important way to maintain connections with the outside world.