If the Illinois General Assembly passes Senate Bill 2134 - automatic voter registration - it may not increase voter participation as much as anticipated but it could be one of the most effective anti-crime laws in the state.
Just like the Oregon statute that became the first of its kind in the country this March, the bill would implement automatic voter registration for any Illinois resident who gets a driver's license or a state identification card.
One of the criticisms offered for the Oregon law was that too many indigent and minority people lacked any interface with the Department of Motor Vehicles because they can't afford the fee for the license/identification. These people wouldn't be automatically registered in Oregon under the new law.
But Illinois might not have that problem if Senate Bill 2134 passes.
Illinois is unique in that it is one of two states with a program that allows people released from prison to exchange a prison ID/discharge papers for a state identification card for free. If the automatic voter registration bill passes, then an Illinois prisoner could leave confinement and be registered to vote - and have identification to apply for jobs - the very same day, even if he has no money. This is important because many released offenders in Illinois don't know that they are eligible to register to vote.
Research from the Florida Parole Commission indicates that recidivism rates for those released offenders who had their right to vote restored was only 11%, as compared with 33% for an entire cohort of convicted felons. That's a 67% decrease in reoffending when felons' voting rights are restored. In a state where recidivism is 51.7%, a reduction is clearly needed.
Re-registering to vote was the easiest part of my re-entry back into society after more than six years in prison. I was released on March 18, 2014, applied online in April and had my voting rights restored through the mail by May 5, 2014.
Even though it was my right and I was legally entitled to vote, just the fact that civic participation was one area of my life where I wouldn't face discrimination gave me a bit more confidence in re-entering society. Re-registering to vote made me feel legit, like I wasn't so bad.
When I voted in the Congressional midterm election in November, I learned that few ex-offenders turn out on the first Tuesday of November with me.
Only one study, published ten years ago, attempted to predict whether restored felons actually vote. Jeff Manza and Marcus Britton, both at Northwestern University at the time, and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota found that about 30 percent of felons would vote when given the chance.
If the restoring the right to vote is so meaningful that it can draw a released offender away from re-offending, then the fact that less than a third of those people use that right shouldn't make sense, at least not to people who have never been incarcerated.
To me, it makes sense. The reason why the Florida study suggests that the mere registration to vote, not actual voting, helped released prisoners to keep away from crime is the value of symbolism in a marginalized person's experience.
Whether the restoration comes hard-fought or not, reinstatement of voting rights represents formalized redemption and a re-acceptance in society, a rare feeling when you're wearing the Scarlet "F" as you exit prison. And if that feeling of redemption is delivered to someone early enough, it can affect how a released offender approaches the challenges that remain ahead of him.
Social workers and parole and probation officers have become so preoccupied with the practical elements of an ex-felon's life - jobs, housing, medical and mental health treatment - that they concentrate more on what these things do rather than what they represent to someone like me. In Illinois, an ex-offender can trade a badge of an old life (prison ID) for an icon of a new life (the state identification card). If Senate Bill 2134 passes and his right to vote is restored at the same time, it's a sign that he's back and he, too, isn't so bad.
Recidivism rates in the eleven states that permanently bar convicted felons from voting aren't good. In 2010, Florida had the highest recidivism rate in the country and the largest population of disenfranchised citizens. I take that as a sign.
Automatic voter registration in Illinois has the potential to keep returning citizens from going back to prison and that alone makes it worth passing, even if it's just a start in maximizing voter participation.