Voting rights advocates registered dozens of Summit County inmates this month for local elections in May. And they plan to do it again for the 2020 presidential election.

There’s no record of anyone ever running a voter drive inside the Summit County Jail, said Clerk of Courts Sandra Kurt, who got the idea from a friend with a shared interest in engaging citizens to strengthen democracy.

“I really believe that the more people that participate in our democracy the better it is,” said Kurt, who estimates that the two-day effort last week added 40 names to Ohio’s voter registry, giving franchise to inmates who might otherwise have missed the 30-day deadline to register for the May 7 primary while behind bars.

“I think it’s a population that definitely needs to know what their rights are and have the opportunity to exercise those rights,” said Kurt.

Adult inmates in Ohio are eligible to vote if they are not serving time for a felony conviction. At the county jail, only a fraction of inmates awaiting transfer to a prison have been sentenced for felony crimes.

“Most are either waiting for a trial or they’re not in there for a felony,” Kurt said.

E.J. Brinson, a friend of Kurt who oversees the Summit County Think Tank, pitched the idea over a cup of coffee. In March, he and Kurt met with a “very cooperative” Sheriff Steve Barry and "team player” Rebecca McCutcheon, the jail’s supervisor for inmate services.

“Everyone decided it was a good idea,” said Inspector Bill Holland of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. “When we determined that a good portion of the population would [be eligible to vote if registered], we made arrangements for them to come in on certain days and times.”

Kurt, who was elected in 2016, went to the Summit County Board of Elections to pick up a stack of voter registration forms and brush up on the legalities of helping eligible Ohioans fill them out.

Then, on Wednesday and Thursday last week, she and Akron Municipal Court Administrator Montrella Jackson went to the women’s wing of the jail while Brinson visited the men. In their respective day rooms, inmates interested in voting walked over to see if they were eligible, based on their ages and criminal cases.

Now that the logistics have been worked out, Kurt and her colleagues plan to come back before every election. “We wanted to make sure that we had all our ducks in a row," she said.

With each visit, the group hopes to help incarcerated individuals become more than just voters.

"People in jail are at their lowest point, and they need to know that people care about them," said Brinson, who gave special thanks to McCutcheon for coordinating the visit. "When we registered [the inmates], we didn’t just go into a room. We went into the pods where they sleep and eat to show that we care. And hopefully that plants a seed in them."

Inmates who registered and are released before May 7 can vote early in person or cast a ballot on Election Day. Each new voter who expects to remain in jail by Election Day was provided an absentee ballot application to vote from jail.

“I hope that this opportunity empowers thoughtful change for the inmates that registered and brings awareness to unregistered voters to participate in the process," Brinson said.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.