Many incarcerated people have the right to vote, but steep barriers can make it nearly impossible. In Cook County, Illinois, that’s starting to change.
By Kiran Misra
Jonathan Manning voted for the first time this October, heading to the polls early to cast his vote. His experience was pretty typical for a voter in Cook County, Illinois. He registered at the polling site, filled out his ballot, and fed it into the ballot machine. But unlike most Chicagoans, after voting, Manning had to return to incarceration in the Cook County Jail, where he is currently detained pretrial.
The Cook County Jail is serving as a polling location this fall, the first time any jail in the United States has hosted in-person early voting in a general election. It also offered in-person voting during the Illinois primary election in March – also the first to do so – thanks to Senate Bill 2090, which was signed into law in late 2019. The bill mandated that any county in Illinois with a population of three million or greater establish a polling place in its county jail. Not only are incarcerated voters able to cast their ballots in person, they will also have the same access to same-day registration, the election protection hotline, and polls monitored by registered poll watchers as voters on the outside.
Like Manning, many of the approximately 745,000 people currently in local jails are eligible to vote in the 2020 general election, which is already well underway in all fifty states. But while most people in jail aren’t legally barred from voting, the ballot remains elusive. Many don’t even know they’re eligible to vote due to widespread misinformation about eligibility perpetuated both inside and outside of jails, including by guards and jail administrators.
And knowing they’re eligible is only the first of many barriers people in jail must surmount before their vote is counted. “Part of the biggest challenge for people who are in jail to vote is the idea of jail churn,” said Ginger Jackson-Gleich, Policy Counsel at the Prison Policy Initiative. “The average stay is between three and four weeks, and many, many people who are in jail stay for a much shorter period of time.” As a result, many people who are incarcerated pretrial during the voting period have missed the voter registration or absentee ballot request deadlines by the time they arrive in jail.
Most people in jail vote absentee, but the time a given person spends in jail is unpredictable, which causes additional problems. If a voter happens to be in jail before both the registration and absentee ballot request deadlines, they have to guess whether they will still be there weeks later, in order to decide not only where to send their ballot, but also which type of request form to use. That can be challenging, given ever-changing court dates, unexpected pretrial releases and bail reevaluations, transfers, and the short length of many jail stays.
To get registered in advance of the deadline, most people in jail also need to have their IDs on them at the time of incarceration – or get a friend or family to deliver it – as a means of verifying their identity. In some jurisdictions, they also must have money for postage to mail both the ballot request form and the actual ballot. Some counties even require notarization, which can be nearly impossible for people in jail to access. Still others have strict for-cause absentee voting policies, which require voters to provide one of several pre-approved reasons for voting absentee. Being incarcerated often isn’t on the list.
But for voters in Cook County Jail, there will be fewer hoops to jump through this election cycle. “The majority of folks that come to vote utilize same day registration,” explained Alexandria Boutros of Chicago Votes. “Because sometimes little things happen, like, ‘oh, I registered to vote and my name was spelled wrong a little bit, or I want to update my address, or the voter registration didn’t go through. You go to vote, and they’re like, ‘you’re not registered to vote.’ What do you do?” Boutros said. “Or let’s say you were in the shower when officers came around and offered vote by mail applications and so you missed it.”
Voting rights have always been unequally distributed in this country. Bringing in-person voting to jails is one way to overcome the significant barriers faced by incarcerated voters, many of whom have yet to be convicted of a crime. “Right now, we’re just awaiting trial to prove our innocence, and I think our vote definitely counts,” explained Manning. “So it’s progress.” And given the disproportionate impact of policing and incarceration on Black communities and communities of color in America, expanding access to the ballot in jails across the country isn’t just a voting rights and criminal justice issue—it’s about racial justice, too.
Making in-person voting a reality in Cook County Jail took a few tries. “Since 2017, Chicago Votes was doing voter registration in the jail, but we were not seeing folks have access to same day registration and early voting, all of these voter rights that we have on the outside,” Boutros said. In collaboration with groups like the ACLU, the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, and State Representative (now Illinois Deputy Governor) Juliana Stratton’s office, leadership at Chicago Votes drafted what would become House Bill 4469, which improved access to voter information, registration, and voting by mail.
HB 4469 passed the Illinois House and Senate unanimously, but former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner issued an amendatory veto, cutting out central provisions like voter education. “Whenever we go inside Cook County Jail and register folks to vote, we always get so many folks that are asking for voter education, ballot resources, things like that. That amendatory veto was truly a huge part of the bill,” Boutros explained. Chicago Votes and its legislative partners decided to reintroduce the full bill in 2019 through the Illinois Senate, with additional partners.
In August 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed SB 2090 into law. “Through this legislation, Illinois is ensuring that the twenty thousand people detained pre-trial each year have an opportunity to participate in our democracy and vote while in detention,” Jose Sanchez Molina, the Governor’s Deputy Press Secretary, said. “Those efforts are in addition to offering first-time registration forms to interested eligible voters in custody, as well as nonpartisan educational sessions on the voting process, current events, and government institutions for those near the end of their incarceration.”
“The civic education component is critically important,” Marlenza Jentz, the Assistant Executive Director of Programs at Cook County Jail, said. “It’s not just like, ‘oh, you can go vote,’ and people don’t know what that means. Making sure voters are vested in the process is really important to your overall success… we go and ask every individual in custody if they’re interested in voting. And if they say yes, then we make sure to facilitate their presence at a polling location located in the jail.”
For the 2020 general election, two weekends of early voting took place in Cook County Jail: October 17-18 and 24-25. More than two thousand people cast their ballots over the two weekends, nearly forty percent of the jail’s population. “In more than one division where voting was taking place in Cook County Jail, it felt like a formal, legitimate, functional polling place,” explains Ami Gandhi of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, who worked as a poll watcher during early voting in the jail. “Those descriptions may not be very exciting…However, it was a massive improvement from what voter access conditions have been like in the past in Cook County Jail, and more generally for communities who are disenfranchised.”
Early evidence shows that an in-person voting option significantly improves voter turnout in jails. According to Boutros, in the spring primary—the first election in which Cook County Jail served as a polling place—the jail saw the highest number of votes cast for a primary election in decades. And it’s on track to surpass records for general election turnout this fall.
High turnout makes Cook County Jail an outlier among jails. The process of voting while incarcerated is, “a lot more complicated than people think it will be,” said Meredith Hellmer, who serves on the board of Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates, and in-person contact is crucial. Nationally, advocates are concerned that the number of votes cast from jails across the country could be much lower this year than in general elections of the past, due to the restrictions on jail visitation during the pandemic.
“There is evidence that suggests that when in-person registration and voting programs are conducted, turnout is far higher than when there is no in-person aspect to this campaign,” Jackson-Gleich explained. “For example, when ballots are just dropped off at a jail, sometimes the completed ballots were in the single digits, like one or two or a handful of ballots. Whereas when more robust voting programs, in-person registration, and voting programs were taking place, turnout rates can be as high sixty or seventy percent, which is phenomenal.”
Normally, organizations like Chicago Votes and Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates would spend months at the jail answering questions about issues like whether those serving weekend-only jail sentences are eligible to vote, and making sure that voters are registering at an address in the community rather than as residents of the jail (which isn’t an acceptable address for voter registration). But most visits like these have been halted during the pandemic.
When in-person visits are limited, other forms of civic education are crucial. But even these face an uphill battle. Injustice Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization in Chicago, coordinated with the Sheriff’s Office for nearly two months to mail copies of their judicial election guides to a thousand voters in Cook County Jail in advance of the two weekends of early voting. The Sheriff’s Office assured them that they would, “advise the mailroom,” about the impending delivery. “We knew that we had a very, very short window to get them in there, so we sent them early with full intention for folks inside to get a chance to read it and use it before the first weekend of early voting,” explained Carlos Ballesteros, a reporter at Injustice Watch.
Weeks later, after voting concluded, they were notified that that the guides had been rejected by the mailroom as contraband, despite the fact that the Sheriff’s Office is mandated to permit access to newsprint, like the voter guides.
“A long and complicated ballot full of jargon could be intimidating for experienced voters and new voters alike,” said Gandhi. “We at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights did confirm last week that voters are not prohibited from bringing voter guides with them to the polling place in Cook County Jail. But, in my observation, I did not see any voters with such materials in the course of poll watching.”
And though poll workers and voters alike wore masks and used hand sanitizer, advocates stress that the only way voters will be truly safe is with massive decarceration efforts, the likes of which have yet to be seen in any correctional facility in America.
In the meantime, advocates hope that the early success of in-person voting in Cook County Jail could inspire other states and counties to implement similar policies. Past attempts to create temporary polling places in jails have nearly come to fruition, but no state has yet to follow Illinois’s lead in establishing official polling places in jails. In fact, many states have recently strengthened exclusionary voting policies; this fall, a federal appeals court ruled that Ohio election officials do not have to provide absentee ballots to individuals jailed after the ballot request or registration deadlines.
Bringing early, in-person voting to jails in Ohio would require a significant change in state law. “It would be wonderful to replicate the success at Cook County Jail here in Ohio,” Hellmer explained. “But Ohio law allows only one early voting location per county, and it’s usually at the Board of Elections. Therefore, a jail cannot be setup as a polling location.”
The situation is pretty similar in Wisconsin. “We think it would take some legislative or administrative rule changes to actually create polling places within county jails at this point,” Molly Collins, the Advocacy Director at ACLU Wisconsin, said. “[For now] we’ve been working with the Sheriff to try to make it easier for folks to register or request a ballot in jail, and then also for people who are eligible for work release to be allowed to go to the polling place on Election Day.”
The long-term goal for voting rights advocates is to eliminate barriers beyond county jails. Most people in local jails can vote because they have not been convicted of the charges they are being held on, or they are serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions. But in some states, anyone with a felony conviction is banned from voting for life. And in nearly every state, including Illinois, anyone in the process of serving a felony sentence is barred from voting. In total, more than five million people are formally barred from voting and millions more are, in practice, unable to access the ballot.
“The evidence is that those policies are racist, and they disproportionately affect some communities over others. For us, that is the reason why this issue is never just going to be about disenfranchising [legally] innocent people,” Jackson-Gleich explained. “It’s about disenfranchising people who are involved in the criminal justice system. Empowering jailed people to vote offers them an opportunity to hold sheriffs and judges accountable to the policies that they implement in administering jails. The idea that we would deprive people whose lives are most impacted by the criminal justice system from having a say just doesn’t add up.”
“When we work with incarcerated citizens, we meet some of the most engaged citizens and voters we have ever come across,” Gandhi said. “It’s not just the races at the top of the ticket that motivate people to show up to the polls. They may be interested not only in who is running for president, but who is running for Cook County State’s Attorney and Cook County judicial positions. It’s a reminder to us that community members in jail are impacted by policy decisions that our elected officials make in a very direct and visceral way, and so they must be among the decision makers who get to decide who represents them in office.”
The right to vote also matters beyond the individual level. In states that have high incarceration rates, the number of people in jail relative to the total population can be significant enough to decide an election, Jackson-Glesch said. Especially at the local level or the county level—decision-makers whose actions may have more daily impact on those they represent than the policymakers at the top of the ballot.
“We still have to deal with the same things everyone else has to deal with when it comes to society and living and our rights,” said Antonio Starks, another voter at Cook County jail. “We’re letting the world know that even though we are detained or incarcerated, our vote still counts.” ■
Kiran Misra is a journalist, policy researcher, and organizer working for the United Nations World Food Programme. She primarily covers Chicago’s civic systems and South Asian culture across America. You can find her on twitter here or online here.
Cover image: People incarcerated in Cook County jail check in before casting their votes on October 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images.
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