Voting rights have been a major focus during this election year, and even in the face of ongoing suppression, voters are using early voting opportunities and mail-in ballots to ensure their voices are heard. In cities across the country, efforts to expand access to the vote have extended to those detained in county jails as organizers have fought not just to register eligible voters inside but also to establish in-jail polling sites. In Houston, Texas, community organizers and the county sheriff’s office are having conversations about what it would take to create a polling site inside the Harris County Jail system. Those discussions took off in 2018 but have been met with opposition from local leadership around public safety concerns. Plans to build a jail polling site in Harris County also must contend with structural obstacles like antiquated facilities. Both are challenges that organizers and the current sheriff intend to navigate in coming years.

While the 2020 election season has not seen a Harris County Jail polling location, this year Illinois’ Cook County Jail has become the first jail in the country to conduct on-site voting. It’s a major victory for local organizers and people detained pretrial, many of whom are eligible to vote but face obstacles casting their ballots. But the success didn’t come without strategy and effort. It took 3 ½ years of organizing to pass SB 2090, the bill that made the in-jail polling site possible.

Here are some best practices from organizers at Chicago Votes on how they got it done:

  1. Learn about your state’s election code. Identify what’s already in the law and what elements you need to build upon. As Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes told Prism, “Every state has a different set of rules for elections so that’s important to understand first before you get into this work. Some states require IDs, some states do not.”

  2. Assess the political landscape. If you’re drafting a state bill, as the Just Democracy coalition did in Illinois, consider where your governor stands. Will large swaths of the bill be vetoed? What legislators will you need to be in conversation with to move to the other side?

  3. Lay the groundwork inside. While you’re lobbying on behalf of your proposed legislation, remain active within your county jail systems. Create programs and build relationships that will help make the legislation implementable. Organizers from Just Democracy began hosting monthly and later biweekly voter registration drives inside before their bill was even passed into law. Further, they collaborated with the Chicago Board of Elections and clerk’s office to develop logistical plans and training materials for how to actually run in-jail elections.

  4. Know your allies and opposition. Prepare to build alliances and expect that sometimes that support may come from unexpected places. While the Sheriff’s Association pushed back against the proposed legislation, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was supportive and his staff worked with organizers to make the program a success. Similarly, organizers in Harris County, Texas, found that County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez was also supportive of their cause, which created the environment for a fruitful and effective partnership.

  5. Continue to engage. Groups like Chicago Votes have continued to do voter registration drives and run civic education programs inside all throughout the year. While the passage of SB 2090 was a milestone, it wasn’t where the work ended.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.