Voting rights advocates say it’s time to give convicted inmates the chance to vote

LaShawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, is one of those behind the push.

SHARE Voting rights advocates say it’s time to give convicted inmates the chance to vote
File photo of State Rep. La Shawn Ford.

Illinois Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, seen here in 2021, is pushing legislation that would allow people who are currently incarcerated in a state prison or county jail for a conviction the right to vote.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Illinois Rep. LaShawn Ford, who has for years championed legislation to restore voting rights to convicts currently behind bars, said the time may finally be right to get it passed — when the General Assembly is back in session in November.

Ford, a Chicago Democrat, and other voting rights advocates held a news conference in Pilsen Thursday, pointing out that approximately 30,000 Illinois prison inmates were ineligible to vote in this week’s election.

“I’m confident that the state and the country is leaning toward making sure people have full protection and full rights in this country,” Ford said. “Citizens should have the full right of citizenship in the country. That’s the way the country is leaning — not restricting the rights when it doesn’t cause harm to others.”

Under the current law, anyone convicted of a crime — misdemeanor or felony — and serving a sentence in a federal or state prison, county jail or on work release is ineligible to vote, according to a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

But SB 828 “provides that a person convicted of a felony, or under sentence in prison or jail, who is disqualified upon conviction from voting shall have his or her right to vote restored and shall be eligible to vote not later than 14 days following his or her conviction.”

Ford and others say disqualifying prison inmates from voting is part of a broader, historic attempt to limit voter rights. The bill would not extend the right to vote to inmates in federal facilities.

“There is a growing understanding of the inherent unfairness and the disproportionate impact on communities of color,” said State Rep Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago. “As long as we are going out of our way to put more Black and brown people in prison, that’s going to impact the voting rights of those communities.”

But some state Senate Republicans have questioned whether the bill is constitutional.

“While the people of Illinois are being subjected to heinous crimes, Democratic legislators are trying to ensure that the very perpetrators of those crimes will still have the opportunity to vote while incarcerated. This is another example of how out of touch the super majority party is with the issues facing the families of Illinois. They seem to be more concerned with securing votes for their party than protecting victims,” said Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield.

Pretrial detainees currently have the right to vote, though exercising that right comes with numerous challenges. In 2020, voting machines were installed at Cook County Jail for the first time so that it could be used as a polling place, thanks to a law vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner and later signed by Gov. J.B. Prtizker.

Only jails in counties of more than 3 million people — meaning only Cook County — are allowed to host a temporary polling place. Other counties must allow mail-in ballots for eligible detainees.

In Illinois, the right to vote is restored after a convict’s sentence is served.

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