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

Matt Vasilogambros, on

Published in News & Features

Misinformation around voting rights is rampant among people in the criminal justice system, said Brian Harrington, 29, who was released from prison in Illinois last April after 13 years of incarceration. Some people awaiting trial in county jails wrongly assume they can’t vote, he said, while others in prison incorrectly think they’ll never have the right to vote after they are released.

“I was clueless,” said Harrington, who now lives in Rockford, Illinois. “There’s this myth that you can’t vote because there’s so many things you can’t do when you get a felony. I just assumed I couldn’t vote.”

Twenty-one states, including Illinois, reinstate voting rights for people with felony convictions after they leave prison. But people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely in 11 states, while in 16 other states their voting rights are restored only after they complete parole, probation or all fines are paid. People never lose their voting rights in D.C., Maine and Vermont.

Harrington now works with Chicago Votes as a civic leader manager, working to boost political engagement among formerly incarcerated people and pressure state lawmakers to allow all adult citizens, including those serving time in prison, the right to vote. An effort to restore voting rights to those serving prison sentences fell short this legislative session, but the fight continues, Harrington said.

“The everyday person thinks of the person in prison as an afterthought, so the people in prison think of themselves as an afterthought,” he said. “We can show them the power of their voice. This can give them an opportunity to feel engaged in their communities.”

Julie Shelton, a retired lawyer and a member of the League of Women Voters of Chicago, has for several years helped facilitate voter registration drives at Cook County Jail. She recently assisted with in-person voting during the 2020 elections.


She has seen women do happy little dances after casting their ballots, singing, “I voted, I voted.” But she has also unsuccessfully tried to persuade others to register to vote.

Some men she spoke to either didn’t feel they knew enough about the candidates to vote or felt that their voice wouldn’t make a difference.

“Their freedom has been taken away,” Shelton said. “Their ability to be with their families and friends has been taken away. Their ability to create wealth or really to continue to be in society in any meaningful way has been taken away. Most of them are going to be let out of prison and we want them to be productive, contributing members of society. But they have to feel like they belong to society.”


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