Chicago, IL – Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has signed off on legislation that will make it easier for eligible jail inmates to participate in elections.
One of the bills will establish a polling place right inside the Cook County Jail, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.
The law changes are expected to affect approximately 20,000 pretrial detainees statewide.
“We’re making sure that 20,000 people detained pretrial each year don’t miss out on the opportunity to have their voices heard,” Pritzker declared, according to The Center Square. “We’re going to be putting a polling place in the Cook County Jail for detainees who are eligible to vote and a vote-by-mail program in every county across the state of Illinois. That’s 102 counties.”
The measure, which went into effect immediately, pertains specifically to inmates who have not yet been convicted of the offenses against them, HuffPost reported.
According to proponents, many detainees inaccurately believe that they have lost the right to vote while they are incarcerated, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.
“In correctional settings, they don't go out of their way to encourage [voting],” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told the news outlet. “Then you add the lack of knowledge on the fact that you have the right to vote. You aren't convicted of anything yet, so you have your voting rights."
Illinois Senator Omar Quino said that the law change was an important step in the fight for inmates' rights.
“Every citizen who is eligible to vote must be provided with the opportunity to cast their ballot,” Aquino declared, according to Herald Publications. “Thousands of eligible voters who are detained before trial are systematically denied that right. Coupled with a justice system that disproportionately jails people of color, there is a clear effort to suppress the vote in communities of color across the country. This measure addresses that systematic voter suppression and shows that we value civic participation in Illinois.”
By creating a polling place at the Cook County jail facility, eligible inmates will be able to register as same-day voters, and will be permitted to cast their ballots in-person instead of going through an absentee voting process.
Approximately 650 inmates voted in Chicago’s municipal elections in 2019.
Sheriff Dart said that the jail will have the polling location established in time for the primary elections in March of 2020, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.
"A bureaucrat could give you 1,000 different reasons why it's onerous,” the sheriff said. “It's just lies. If we can't figure out how to pull this thing off, then we should quit."
Corrections personnel will also be required to provide information about voter eligibility and applications for voter registration to inmates who are being discharged from jails, prisons, or other Department of Corrections (DOC) programs, HuffPost reported.
“This program will consist of three 90-minutes sessions of voting process, government and current affairs that is taught by incarcerated citizens who are specially trained by established non-partisan civic organizations,” Pritzker’s office said, according to The Center Square.
The governor praised the legislation, and said it would help to empower minorities.
“Illinois will continue to stand strong, even as our country takes a dangerous turn toward deeper disenfranchisement of minority communities,” Pritzker declared at the bill signing, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
"Especially as the Voting Rights Act remains gutted, especially as jurisdictions across the nation purge voter rolls and restrict registrations in college towns and communities of color, here in Illinois, we'll do our best to live up to the ideals of our democracy,” the governor added.
Pritzker also signed off on a bill that will give between three and six months of jail credit to inmates who were imprisoned before 1998 if they complete substance abuse treatment or earn a college degree, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.
Voter education and registration group Chicago Votes said their next goal is to push for legislation that would automatically register inmates to vote once they have been released from prison.
The group said it also wants to restore voting rights to convicted felons who are serving their prison sentences, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.