Many people in jail can vote, but exercising their rights is not easy

Cook County, Illinois — The Cook County Prison Chapel and Law Library look like any other polling place across the country, with a few notable exceptions.

Illinois convicted of felony lose voting rights while sentenced to imprisonment, but most of the 6,000 detained in jail southwest of Chicago wait for trial or misdemeanor Maintains voting rights while submitting to.

In the November presidential election, about 2,200 people voted from four polling stations across the eight-block campus of the prison. Correctional authorities have opened prisons to visitors for monthly voter registration drives and civil lessons. It also provides a two-week weekend of early voting and provides voter education materials, including informational videos that can be played on TV in common areas.

Marlena Jentz, the first Secretary-General of Cook County Prison, said:

This commitment by corrective authorities to access to ballots is rare in the United States. Illinois’s largest county is located in one of the few jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County and Washington, DC, where you can vote directly on some of the people in prison.

According to a 2020 report from the Massachusetts-based non-profit prison policy initiative, there are approximately 746,000 prisons nationwide, most of whom are eligible to vote. An organization formed by Rev. Jesse Jackson. However, the report found that few people exercised their voting rights.

Minor offenses awaiting trial or not affecting voting rights, while public pressure is increasing to regain voting rights for previously convicted felony after being released from prison Not much attention is paid to those sitting in local prisons convicted in. ..

From nine states that prevent prisoners from voting absentee to widespread confusion among those detained for their voting eligibility, criminal justice activists have access to ballots in prisons. States that there are many barriers.

Wanda Bertram, a spokesman for the Prison Policy Initiative, said: “Otherwise, we are depriving the thousands of people who actually have the highest interests in these elections.”

In Wisconsin, where most of the 13,000 prisoners are eligible to vote, the voting group All Voting is Local, the Wisconsin Women’s Voter Alliance, and the Wisconsin American Citizens’ Freedom Union have joined the state’s 72 county security officers. I submitted a record request to each. This year. The group found that more than half of sheriffs said they were implementing policies to encourage prison-based voting. For many imprisoned people, the group found several hurdles, including state voter identity legislation.

Badgers do not allow prison IDs as an acceptable form of identification for voting. People in prison who wish to register for voting or request an absentee ballot should ask a corrector to make a copy of their confiscated driver’s license or other state-issued ID.

“This wasn’t at the forefront of the voter accessibility debate,” said Shauntay Nelson, director of All Voting is Local in Wisconsin. “This is the responsibility of county prisons, election managers, managers, and Congress. We need to work together.”

After receiving a record request from a Wisconsin voting group last year, Captain Dave Lee Wester, prison manager at the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office, said his 418-bed prison had no voting policy. I noticed. As a veteran working abroad in Kosovo, he said he knew the value of the democratic process and the defense of constitutional rights. However, he said state law posed a serious challenge.

Wisconsin elections take place at the city level, so to provide direct voting, Lee Westerle must invite workers from 18 county towns to prison. Therefore, it makes sense to limit it to absentee ballots by mail.

Still, with the help of local election authorities and voting groups, Riewestahl hosted two voter registration drives. Sitting behind the plexiglass and banned barriers in the visitor area, volunteers and electoral authorities registered more than 12 new voters, slipped important documents into the small slits in the dividers, and spoke on closed-circuit phones. did.

Scanning state-issued IDs of individuals imprisoned to meet state voter ID legislation puts a strain on his staff, but Riewestahl is happy to help. He also made the state voter registration website one of three approved sites available for wall-mounted tablets in public areas.

“People in prison are people in the community,” he said in an interview. “Voting is an important life skill that you need to use, whether someone is in prison or not in detention. If you are qualified and want to vote, the prison has the resources to do that. There is support. “

Earlier this year, in New York City, the Legal Assistance Association accused the city hall, corrections bureau, and state elections committee of not distributing voter registration information in city prisons prior to last month’s primary elections. Corrective authorities disputed the letter and told Gotamists that they “we went too far to promote voter involvement.”

In Illinois, it has been legislated to set up polling sites in prisons. In 2019, Democratic Governor JB Pritzkar signed a bill allowing Cook County to set up a polling place on the premises. The law only allows this in counties with a population of over 3 million, namely Cook County. The primary election in March last year was the first election in which a Chicago prison voted directly.

Pritzker has signed another bill requiring counties throughout the state to offer three 90-minute civic courses before people are released from prison. The state also requires prisons and prisons to provide voter registration forms to those leaving or in prison.

“It’s a moment of light in the dark,” said Jendine, co-deputy director of the Chicago Voting, which has registered nearly 6,000 voters in Cook County Prison since 2017. Dean trained organizers in 30 counties across the country. How to facilitate voting in local prisons in states from South Carolina to California.

“The prison is a reverberation room for violence and trauma,” she added. “And this is the moment when people can realize they can influence.”

Pritzker signed a large-scale voting bill last month that included a clause allowing prairie state university county sheriffs to set up 20,000 polling stations in local prisons. Previously, people in these prisons could only vote by absentee ballot.

“Why should people waiting for a trial not have the right to vote, who are not guilty until they are found guilty,” said Democrat Maurice West, who sponsored the legislation.

No Republican voted in favor of the final bill, and the GOP office contacted by Stateline did not respond to requests for comment.

The new law allows local prisons to expand direct voting, but does not require it. West, one of the bill’s sponsors, wants Congress to mandate its expansion later. He hesitates to expand voting access in prisons because of resource depletion and the stigma of allowing prisoners to vote, especially in conservative areas, for sheriffs outside the Chicago area. I’m worried about it.

As is done in many rural Illinois communities, prison officials in Tazewell County in the central part of the state hand out absentee ballots to eligible imprisoned people. The prison officer then returns the completed ballot to the county election manager.

John Ackerman, secretary of Tazewell County, said opening a polling place in a prison with a capacity of 226 beds would not be logically or financially meaningful. His constituency usually consists of 800 voters, costs $ 11,000 per election, and requires at least three electoral judges. He does not expect the county to take advantage of the new Illinois law to expand direct voting.

“We’ve been doing that for years,” he said. “I don’t know why we change that.”

Arizona and Colorado sheriffs are required by law to coordinate with county clerk to provide detainees with access to ballots by registration and mail. Meanwhile, prisons in Philadelphia and Rhode Island are hosting voter registration drives. The Voting Rights Group also hosts registered drives in about 10 other states.

False information about voting rights is rampant among people in the criminal justice system, said Brian Harrington, 29, who was released from an Illinois prison last April after 13 years in prison. .. He believes that some people waiting for a trial in county prison mistakenly think they can’t vote, while others mistakenly think they don’t have the right to vote after being released. Stated.

“I was ignorant,” said Harrington, who currently lives in Rockford, Illinois. “There is this myth that you can’t vote because there are so many things you can’t do when you commit a felony. I just thought I couldn’t vote.”

Twenty-one states, including Illinois, have reinstated voting rights for people convicted of felony after leaving prison. However, people convicted of felony lose their voting rights indefinitely in 11 states, while in the other 16 states they only regain their voting rights after parole, probation, or all fines have been paid. To do. In DC, Maine and Vermont, people never lose their voting rights.

Harrington is now working with Chicago Voting and Citizen Leader Manager to promote political involvement among formerly imprisoned people, to state legislators and to all adult citizens, including those in prison. We are pressing to give them the right to vote. Efforts to regain voting rights for prisoners have fallen short of the legislative session, but the fight continues, Harrington said.

“Everyone thinks people in jail are retrofits, so people in prisons think they are retrofits,” he said. “We can show them the power of their voice. This gives them the opportunity to feel engaged in their community.”

Julie Shelton, a retired lawyer and member of the Chicago Women’s Voter Alliance, has been helping promote voter registration drives in Cook County Prison for several years. She recently helped vote directly during the 2020 elections.

She has seen a woman cast a ballot and perform a happy little dance after singing, “I voted, I voted.” But she also failed in trying to persuade others to register to vote.

Some of the men she spoke to didn’t feel they knew enough about the candidates they voted for, or their voices didn’t make a difference.

“Their freedom has been deprived,” Shelton said. “Their ability to be with family and friends has been deprived. Their ability to generate wealth and remain in society in a meaningful way has been deprived. Most of them will be released from prison. And we want them to be productive and contribute to society, but they must feel that they belong to society. “

Detainees from Cook County Prison will vote using a touch screen at the polling place of the facility set up for early voting on October 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.

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