Illinois lawmakers approved a measure Tuesday to require the state to make it easier for people to vote in jail, including allowing inmates in one of the largest jails in the country to vote in person if they are eligible.
The bill requires officials in Cook County, home of Chicago, to establish a temporary polling place in the jail. Officials in other counties with less than 3 million people must offer an opportunity to vote absentee while in jail.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the bill into law. A spokesman for the Democratic governor did not return a request for comment.
The measure is significant because many people detained in jails can vote but don’t know they are eligible. Illinois, like most states, prohibits people convicted of felonies from voting while they are incarcerated, but people being held in jail are often being held before a trial or on a misdemeanor charge, meaning they can still vote. Just eight of the state’s 102 counties had formal programs to assist people in jail with voting, according to a 2018 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union and Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Turnout in jails in those eight counties was just 13% in the 2016 presidential election and 2018 primary, according to Mother Jones magazine.
The measure also required corrections officials to take steps to ensure people who interact with the criminal justice system understand their voting rights. The officials would be required to give anyone leaving jail, prison or Department of Corrections custody with information on their eligibility to vote. Officials will also be required to give those leaving jail or prison a voter registration application.
“If returning citizens don’t know about their right to vote, they are much less likely to exercise those rights ― and it’s an essential part of democracy,” Khadine Bennett, the Illinois ACLU’s advocacy and intergovernmental affairs director, said in a statement.
Voting offers people detained in jail a meaningful connection to the outside world and reminds them of the responsibilities of citizenship, experts say. One 2004 study found a correlation between voting and a lower rate of re-arrest. Although voting does not cause the lower re-arrest rates, the study said that voting is an expression of a desire to be a “law-abiding stakeholder in a larger society.”
“This has an extraordinary psychological effect on any individual, let alone someone who has been shut out of society,” said Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes, a group that lobbied for the bill. “Imagine sitting in jail for a marijuana conviction and then seeing a ballot measure asking if cannabis should be legalized? Imagine sitting in jail for a crime you did not commit and you get to vote for the judge who has gone above and beyond to give you a second chance or, vice versa, has kept you in jail waiting for your trial for over two years.
“When you give someone that power, there is no way to measure the profound lasting impact that can have on someone’s life and the agency one has to create change.”
Dean also estimated there are 20,000 people being held in jail pre-trial in Illinois.
Illinois lawmakers approved a similar bill last year, but then-Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) vetoed it.
In Cook County, Sheriff Tom Dart (D) has supported allowing inmates to register in jail and allowed activists to regularly go inside the jail to register people. HuffPost followed activists from Chicago Votes as they registered detainees last summer.
“Just because we’re in jail doesn’t define me or who I am,” said Lee Mitchell, one of the men who registered that day. “I’m still a human being, and I still have an opinion. I still would like to be heard in some type of way, especially a positive way, even with me being in the place that I’m in.”