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Volunteer effort seeks to add eligible convicts to voter rolls

YOUNGSTOWN — It’s not commonly known that in Ohio if you’re in jail on a misdemeanor conviction or have served prison time for a felony, you are eligible to vote.

To help get the message out and hopefully get those eligible to become registered voters, the League of Women Voters of Greater Youngstown and other members of Valley Votes, a group of local nonprofits and other organizations interested in voter registration, hosted a jail voting volunteer training program Friday.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there that people in jail can’t vote,” said Chynna Baldwin, Ohio advocacy manager for All Voting is Local, a national organization that works to register voters. “When I go in, jail officials aren’t aware of election law. The most significant part of the process is education.”

About 40 people attended the program at the YWCA Mahoning Valley, 25 W. Rayen Ave.

The Mahoning County Board of Elections has gone into the county jail annually the past few years to register voters and give those convicted of misdemeanors absentee ballots, said Raymond Butler, board secretary.

“There’s always a need in the community to get people to register to vote,” he said. “We have a great number of people who don’t vote. We want to get more people involved.”

Valley Votes wants to do even more, Kristen Olmi, president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Youngstown, said.

“We plan to go into jails with volunteers and register those who are eligible,” she said. “We’ve been working since the middle of 2019 to register as many voters as we can and this is part of that.”

Olmi said she reached out to officials with the Trumbull County Board of Elections and Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office about Friday’s event, but didn’t hear back from either.

The Ohio Secretary of State’s office says that those serving time in jail or prison for a felony conviction cannot register to vote or vote. Also, a person twice convicted of a violation of the state’s elections laws is permanently banned from voting in Ohio.

But those convicted of a misdemeanor may vote — even if they’re still incarcerated. Also, those who had been convicted of a felony can register and vote even while on probation or parole after finishing their sentence.

However, the voter registration of those convicted of felonies is canceled, so once they’re released from jail or prison they need to re-register to vote, according to the secretary of state.

“The hardest part is people feel they can’t vote even if they’re eligible,” Baldwin said. “I’d like to think people aren’t intentionally telling them they can’t vote.”

All Voting is Local tracked voter registration at five county jails in Ohio in 2018.

It showed that in Cuyahoga County, 400 inmates were registered during a drive and 60 percent to 70 percent voted.

It wasn’t so good elsewhere.

In Franklin County, only four inmates were registered, and none voted.

In Lake County, 70 were registered with no data on how many voted.

In Montgomery County, seven were registered with no information on how many voted.

In Hamilton County, an effort to register inmates failed to get any to sign up.

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