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Voting With Inmates At The Franklin County Jail

Esther Honig
Ohio is one of only a handful of states where some inmates are allowed to cast a ballot from jail.

At the Franklin County Jail on Jackson Pike, Lieutenant Lee VanDette walks me through a maze of cinder block halls.

"If you see people wearing blue shirts and tan pants," VanDette says, "those are inmates."

We head to the roll call room, a modest conference room with a few tables and a row of computers. This is where inmates will come to cast their ballots for the 2016 election.

Ohio is one of the least restrictive states when it comes to prison and convict voting. Inmates here are allowed to vote while in jail if they've been convicted of a misdemeanor, or if they're awaiting trail for a felony charge.

VanDette says since October, the jail has posted fliers outside cells and in the visitation rooms reminding inmates about the upcoming election. He reads from one of the fliers in his hand.

"Inmates wishing to make an application for an absentee ballot would need to follow these steps," VanDette says. "And there's several steps here. One of the things is that they have to registered in Franklin County."

In Ohio, felons have their voting rights automatically restored once they've completed their sentence. Compare that to the 13 states, many in the south, where ex-felons are completely barred from voting. Or the 29 states where ex-felons must complete parole or probation before they can vote.

"If you're in jail or prison as a sentenced felon you cannot vote," VanDette says. "Now, being a sentenced felon does not mean you can't not vote down the road."
Back at the county jail, guards escort inmates into the make-shift voting room.
Shirley Royer and Theresa Cornell are there from the Franklin County Board of Elections. They're ready to walk each person through their absentee ballot. 

Credit Esther Honig / WOSU
Workers from the Franklin County Board of Elections visit every jail, hospital and psychiatric ward, collecting ballots from those who cannot travel to them.

Both Royer and Cornell are retired, but take on this work seasonally. Royer has been collecting ballots at the jails for the last 12 years, and that includes presidential primaries and local elections.

"Everyone has the right to vote," Royer says."And it is a privilege and one of our last rights that we have."

But the number of inmates casting ballots this year is miniscule.

Just eight inmates out of a jail population of 1,600 will vote. At the county's downtown jail, just three of 500 inmates voted.

Royer says this is typical voter turnout for the jails. She explains many inmate applications for absentee ballots are denied. She says many people have not registered with their latest address, or it turns out they have a felony conviction.

"So as long as they are not convicted as a felon we will keep coming, whether there's three or five or ten," Royer says.

Because inmates don't have access to the Internet, it can be hard to get information on all the candidates and ballot issues. Cornell says they're only allowed to provide simple explanations, but say some inmates lack the information to make an educated vote.

"A lot of times they want to know who would we vote for," Cornell says."And we have to remind them that this is their ballot. It's their vote."

Prisons are not the only pre-election stops for Royer and Cornell. They have traveled the county collecting ballots from the voters who cannot come to them. That includes every nursing home, hospital, psychiatric ward—even home visits for voters with physical disabilities.

"No ballot is left behind," Royer says.