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Pretrial detainees to vote at first polling place in Cook County Jail

42 voting machines will be brought in during the first two weekends in March — marking the first time in the country a polling place will be available for pretrial detainees.

John Brunious (top left), Ronnie Moore (bottom left), Richard Cechman (middle), Michael Watford (bottom right) and Justin Hamilton (top right) talk about voting from inside Cook County Jail.
John Brunious (top left), Ronnie Moore (bottom left), Richard Cechman (middle), Michael Watford (bottom right) and Justin Hamilton (top right) talk about voting from inside Cook County Jail.

Michael Watford never got a chance to vote.

After he was convicted of a non-violent felony in Wisconsin at 18, the now 28-year-old was barred from casting a ballot.

But now that Watford is in Illinois — where he can vote, despite his criminal record — he decided it was the right time to exercise his right while awaiting trial in Cook County Jail on a separate case.

“I registered to vote because I never had the right to vote before,” Watford said recently at the jail where 42 voting machines will be brought in during the first two weekends in March — marking the first time in the country a polling place will be available for pretrial detainees.

Cook County Jail’s polling station is possible because a new law that took effect Jan. 1. of Senate Bill 2090 was vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 but signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last year. The law states that jails in counties of more than 3 million people are allowed to host a temporary polling place for those eligible to vote.

The population restriction for now means the law applies only to Cook County. Illinois’ 101 other counties will continue to use mail-in ballots.

Registered voters awaiting trial in Cook County Jail discuss how their vote matters.
Registered voters awaiting trial in Cook County Jail discuss how their vote matters.
Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

“The only people in this state that are constitutionally ineligible to vote are people that’s in prison,” state Rep. La Shawn Ford said. The new law “made sure that every county, 102 across the state, did not violate the detainees’ right to vote.”

About 20,000 people awaiting trial in Illinois have a constitutional right to vote, said Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes voter registration and participation. In Cook County Jail, 98% of the population is awaiting trial.

“That’s a giant voter block right there, especially people who were impacted by our criminal justice system,” Dean said. Since October 2017, Chicago Votes has registered 5,382 detainees in the county.

“Generally, individuals who are pre-trial have the constitutional right to vote while in jail,” said Khadine Bennett, director of advocacy and intergovernmental affairs for ACLU Illinois.

“However, if a state has a law on the book that takes away the right to vote permanently when a person is convicted, that pretrial person would not be able to vote because of that law.”

This will be the first election that Watford will be able to vote in. After being convicted in Wisconsin, he did not have the opportunity to vote until coming to Illinois.
This will be the first election that Michael Watford will be able to vote in. After being convicted in Wisconsin, he did not have the opportunity to vote until coming to Illinois.
Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

In Watford’s case, he is able to vote in Illinois because the state prevents only those currently serving time from voting.

Restrictions regarding voting and criminal backgrounds vary from state to state, so it can be confusing for jails officials to know who can vote.

Many counties “didn’t realize that [voting] was a right that pretrial detainees had,” Bennett said.

“There’s a pretty wide swing as far as ... what goes on in the other jails,” said Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart.

SB 2090 addressed this confusion by requiring all Illinois jails to provide detainees with registration materials and mail-in ballots.

Ronnie Moore, 57, has been in and out of Cook County Jail since his early 20s, and has voted both inside and outside of jail.
Ronnie Moore, 57, has been in and out of Cook County Jail since his early 20s, and has voted both inside and outside of jail.
Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Before the new law, only eight Illinois counties, including Cook County, provided information and registered pretrial detainees.

Cook County Jail has run its own voting program with mail-in ballots since the 1970s, said Jim Allen, spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Elections. Since 2007, Dart has expanded the program.

With same-day registration and access to polling machines, those in the Cook County Jail who want to vote can do so without complications.

Justin Hamilton, 36, talking about the importance of voting in local and state elections.
Justin Hamilton, 36, talking about the importance of voting in local and state elections.
Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

“One of the most important things about elections is the local elections,” said Cook County inmate Justin Hamilton. “That’s where you get the most influence.”

Inmate Ronnie Moore was also looking forward to voting.

“It’s an honor to vote in Illinois because … in other states they don’t let you vote if you’re a convicted felon,” Moore, 57, said.

Among the candidates on the March 17 primary ballot are 74 Cook County judges and state’s attorney — decisions made by the winning candidates could affect the detainees.

John Brunious, 55, reflects on how the ability to vote is important, especially for those who have been in and out of the judicial system.
John Brunious, 55, reflects on how the ability to vote is important, especially for those who have been in and out of the judicial system.
Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

“We have seen some judges who have model behavior, and people on the inside really want other judges to learn from their really positive ethics and making sure that sentences are not racially biased,” Dean said.

“I believe now [voting] is extremely important because change is needed in so many different areas,” John Brunious, 55, who has been in and out of Cook County Jail since he was 18, said. Brunious is hoping, and voting, for larger structural reform in Cook County.

“The only way that’s going to happen is ... through the voting process.”