Gov. J.B. Pritzker yesterday signed a suite of criminal justice laws that burnish his progressive bona fides and expand election access and education to jail detainees and prisoners statewide. One significant change—the Cook County Jail will have its own polling place.
While the jail’s population traditionally hovers around 6,000, turnout via absentee ballot voting there has been low in recent elections. Advocates hope the bill expands participation in Cook County and at jails across the state.
“Illinois will continue to stand strong, even as our country takes a dangerous turn toward deeper disenfranchisement of minority communities,” Pritzker said at the bill signing. “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.”
Besides expanding voting opportunities at jails, the bills signed today give prisoners incarcerated before 1998 time-served credit (90 or 180 days) for completing education and provide civics classes for those who are about to leave prison.
Chicago Votes, a voter registration and education group, had been working with others like the League of Women Voters to register detainees at the Cook County Jail to vote since 2017. The groups said they had to fight the false perception among some detainees that they’d lost their right to vote.
The jail’s transient population also plays a role.
“If you put a big registration drive on a Monday, they can be gone by Tuesday,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. “It’s a moving target.…In correctional settings, they don’t go out of their way to encourage this activity. 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.”
Cook County Jail detainees could vote absentee in previous cycles—a complicated process on its own.
“It starts with everybody who is detained on a specific day who is not serving time for a felony,” said Chicago Votes co-Deputy Director Jen Dean. “The operations department in the jail puts the list together, who sends the list to the mailroom, the mail room director sends a letter to the Chicago Board of Elections, who then prepare ballot applications for everyone on that list, which goes back to the jail.”
Volunteers sort them by division and tier, and detainees fill out applications, which are then mailed back to election officials. But if detainees miss one of two windows to apply, “you’re not going to vote. That’s why getting machines in there is so important.”
Chicago Votes and other partners pushed for a bill to make the jail into a polling place instead. It allows for same-day voter registration and the ability to vote in person, rather than voting absentee.
Jails outside of Cook will now be required to establish a process that allows detainees awaiting trial to cast their ballots during elections. Dean said the change would help roughly 20,000 pretrial detainees statewide cast ballots.
Dart says he’s confident the jail can accomplish the task in time for the 2020 March primary and beyond. “A bureaucrat could give you 1,000 different reasons why it’s onerous. It’s just lies. If we can’t figure out how to pull this thing off, then we should quit.”
Chicago election authorities are similarly confident. The jail’s polling place will operate similarly to an early voting site, so that all ballot styles would be available for any detainee, depending on their address.
“The board began offering a form of in-person voting in the early 1970s at the jail, and then, per the sheriff, switched to a vote-by-mail operation, and then, more recently a vote-by-mail operation with the option to submit the return ballot envelopes in person to a board staff member or county clerk staff member,” Chicago Board of Elections spokesperson Jim Allen said. “We believe this will require continued planning, but we don’t anticipate any difficulties.”
About 650 detainees voted in the 2019 municipal elections.
“I want to put an emphasis on the educational component,” Dart said. “We only have about 10 to 15 percent turnout as far as participation goes. There isn’t exactly a groundswell of people doing it.”
For Chicago Votes, the next steps are to automatically register those released from prison and to potentially restore voting rights to imprisoned felons.