COOK COUNTY, Ill. — The chapel and law library at the Cook County Jail look like any other polling places around the country, with a couple notable exceptions: the monochrome uniforms of the voters and the alert officers keeping an eye on them.
Although Illinoisans convicted of felonies lose their right to vote while serving prison sentences, most of the 6,000 people detained at the jail on Chicago’s southwest side maintain their voting privileges as they await trial or serve time for misdemeanors.
During November’s presidential election, around 2,200 people voted from four polling places across the jail’s eight-block campus. Corrections officials have opened the jail to visitors for monthly voter registration drives and civics lessons. They also offer two weekends of early voting and provide voter education materials, including informational videos that can be played on common-area TVs.
“If we’re going to have a significant role in returning individuals to our communities as stronger citizens, there’s no better way to do that than voting,” said Marlena Jentz, first assistant executive director for the Cook County Jail.
This commitment to ballot access by corrections officials is unusual in the United States. Illinois’ largest county is among just a few jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County and Washington, D.C., that allow in-person voting for some of those in jail.
Nationwide, there are around 746,000 people in local jails, and most are eligible to vote, according to a 2020 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But very few exercise their right to vote, the report found.
While national pressure grows to restore voting rights for people with previous felony convictions after their release from prison, less attention has been given to people sitting in local jails who are awaiting trial or have been convicted of misdemeanors that don’t affect their right to vote.
From the nine states that prevent people in jail from casting absentee ballots to the widespread confusion among those in detention about their voting eligibility, criminal justice activists say there are many barriers to ballot access in jails.
“Sheriffs have to work to understand who is eligible to vote and make that information clear to people in custody,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. “Otherwise, we’re disenfranchising thousands of people who actually have the highest stakes in these elections.”
In Wisconsin, where most of the 13,000 people detained in jails are eligible to vote, voting rights groups All Voting is Local, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin submitted records requests to each of the state’s 72 county sheriffs earlier this year. The group found that just over half the sheriffs said they had policies in place to encourage jail-based voting. For many incarcerated people, the group found several hurdles, including the state’s voter ID law.