Illinois Allows In-Jail Voting — Even Sets Up ‘Civics’ Classes for Inmates About to be Released

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How to Avoid the Jail Cell’s Revolving Door (Image credit: Chicagotonight.wttw.com)

I t was just last month when Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law the possession, sale and use of recreational marijuana throughout the state of Illinois. This month, the rookie governor has now signed three far-reaching prison reform bills as well.

As reported by The Center Square, omnibus Senate Bill 2090 requires each of Illinois’ 102 county jails to establish and operate voting facilities for eligible inmates.

“We’re making sure that 20,000 people detained pretrial each year don’t miss out on the opportunity to have their voices heard,” so sayeth Governor Pritzker.

In Illinois, since the 1970s, detained but unconvicted jail inmates have had the right to vote; but neither the Feds, the state nor the county lifted a finger to aid these people in the process of voting.

Look at it this way: You are locked up tight in a jail cell on a minor charge on election day. You are properly registered to vote, but have no way or means of exercising your still intact right to vote. You ask a jailer about this, about how you may vote. His or her response is a cynical, “Shoulda thought about that before you got arrested.”

Over the years, national and local civil rights groups, including the ACLU, NAACP, the Chicago Urban League, and especially Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH organization, have conducted vigorous and sustained voter registration drives inside Chicago’s Cook County Jail, this nation-state’s second largest county jail. At any given moment, upwards of ninety percent of Cook County’s detainees retain the right to vote while awaiting disposition of their cases.

The new law mandates that an in-person polling place, complete with electronic voting machines, paper ballots, election judges and poll watchers, be set up in each of the jail’s ten divisions. For those who may have filled out a ballot by mail, they may drop it off at the in-jail polling station. The same system and situation must obtain state-wide:

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, Pritzker said.

These new polling places will function in the same manner as “early voting” stations do on the outside of the jail’s bars and walls.

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 country clerk staff member, Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, told Chicago Business Magazine.

“We believe this will require continued planning, but we don’t anticipate any difficulties.”

Republican Opposition — So What Else Is New?

Not everyone in Illinois is happy about this new development, this extension of the actual voting process to accused misdemeanants and alleged felons — practically right into their jail cells. Illinois Republican state Representative Tim Butler, for example, is four-square against the very idea. He argues that this population already has the right to vote and that the government has no obligation to aid them in exercising that right.

“We make it very easy for people to vote in Illinois, and at the end of the day, it is the citizen’s responsibility to make sure that they vote,” he said.

And if you didn’t get it the first time, Rep. Butler repeated himself: “It’s not the government’s responsibility to make sure that they vote, it is the citizen’s responsibility to make sure that they vote.” Interestingly, Butler views in-jail voting stations and the aiding of inmates in the process of voting as an “offer,” not unlike “pandering.” It’s not clear what Butler means by this, though. Does he think that by encouraging and helping inmates to vote, the state is acting as some kind of pimp? If so, then the inmates are….. what? Tricks? Or prostitutes? What “position” does this pandering analogy put the prison guards and administration in, then?

Meanwhile, the good Governor Pritzker also signed two other bills relative to prison reform which are folded into and constitute an integral part of the voting process as well. For those prisoners about to be released, an actual “civics” class will be mandated:

“This program will consist of three 90-minutes sessions of the voting process, government and current affairs that are taught by incarcerated citizens who are specially trained by established non-partisan civic organizations,” the governor’s office said, according to The Center Square.

Crucially, a final bill offers inmates a chance to significantly reduce their sentences (especially if they are serving time for misdemeanors) by completing specified educational requirements:

  • Ninety days will be deducted from one’s sentence upon completion of a substance abuse treatment program;
  • Completion of a bachelor’s degree shaves six months from one’s sentence; and
  • Completion of a master’s degree earns another six months off one’s sentence.

And, of course, once prisoners have completed their sentences in Illinois, their voting rights are automatically and fully restored.

Across huge swaths of every part of this nation-state, the notion that prisoners and ex-prisoners (felons) must not be allowed to participate in the decision-making process of the American body politic is deeply rooted in its soul and psyche. This attitude, opinion, belief and value among many Americans is close to being an article of faith. Disenfranchising felons falls in perfect line with all of the other original restrictions on American citizenship, including, especially, voting, as expressed in this country’s founding documents.

Perhaps columnist Chauncey De Vega put it best, writing over at Salon.com this week:

America was founded as a democracy for white landowning men. Black people were deemed to be human property. Indigenous people were to be exterminated as part of the country’s “manifest destiny.” Nonwhites en masse were viewed by white society as not being fit for democracy. Women effectively had no voice in the polity — except through their husbands, fathers, brothers or other men. To improve, American democracy has required a lengthy ongoing struggle against those defects and the country’s core character as a democracy structured around domination for some groups and subordination for others.

This week in Illinois, allowing in-custody, non-convicted prisoners to vote while still in lock-up is a monumental step forward in that protracted struggle to which De Vega refers. It is perhaps the latest effort to force this country, as Dr. King put it, to “live up to the true meaning of its creed.”

References:

https://nonprofitquarterly.org/new-illinois-law-allows-inmates-vote-person-jail-polling-sites/

https://newsone.com/3780230/cook-county-jail-vote-election-2018-chicago-inmates/

https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2019/06/12/inmates-will-soon-be-able-to-vote-from-jail/

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/06/prisoners-convicts-felons-inmates-right-to-vote-enfranchise-criminal-justice-voting-rights-213979

https://www.salon.com/2019/08/26/trumps-words-of-warning-i-always-find-a-way-to-win-take-him-seriously/

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Freelancer since the earth first began cooling. My beat, justice: racial, social, political, economic and cultural. I’m on FB, Twitter, Link, hdyerjr@gmail.com.

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