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Many in jail can vote, but exercising that right isn't easy

Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

“It’s a moment of light in a dark situation,” said Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes, which has registered close to 6,000 voters at the Cook County Jail since 2017. Dean has trained organizers in 30 counties across the country, in states from South Carolina to California, on how to make voting easier in local jails.

“Jail is an echo chamber of violence and trauma,” she added, “and this is a moment when people can realize that they can have an impact.”

Pritzker last month signed a sweeping voting bill with a provision allowing county sheriffs across the Prairie State to set up polling places for the 20,000 people in local jails. Previously, people in those jails could vote only by absentee ballot.

“Tell me why those awaiting trial, who are innocent until proven guilty, shouldn’t have the right to vote?” said Democratic state Rep. Maurice West, who sponsored the legislation.

No Republicans voted in favor of the final bill, and no GOP offices contacted by Stateline responded to requests for comment.

The new law allows local jails to expand in-person voting, but doesn’t require it. West, one of the bill’s sponsors, hopes the legislature will later make that expansion mandatory. He worries sheriffs outside of the Chicago area will be reluctant to expand voting access in their jails because of resource shortages and the stigma, especially in conservative areas, of allowing incarcerated people to vote.

 

As is done in many communities throughout rural Illinois, jail personnel in Tazewell County in the central part of the state hand out absentee ballots to incarcerated people who are eligible to vote. Corrections officers then return completed ballots to county election officials.

John Ackerman, the Tazewell County clerk, said it does not make logistical or financial sense to open a polling location within a jail that has just a 226-bed capacity. His precincts usually comprise 800 voters, cost $11,000 per election and require at least three election judges. He does not expect the county to take advantage of Illinois’ new law and expand in-person voting.

“We’ve been doing it for a number of years that way,” he said. “I don’t see a reason why we’d change that.”

Arizona and Colorado sheriffs are required by law to coordinate with county clerks to provide registration and mail-in ballot access to people who are detained, while Philadelphia and Rhode Island jails have held voter registration drives. Voting rights groups have also held registration drives in around 10 other states.

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