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Make it easy for overlooked eligible voters to cast a ballot

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Everyone who is eligible to vote should have the right to vote, don’t you think?

Our democracy truly is representative when more of us who are eligible participate; when elections are fair; when districts are drawn without regard to political considerations; when access to the ballot is open to all; and when all who are eligible can vote.

That isn’t what’s happening in Illinois. Politicians draw districts to their political advantage. The requirements for running for office and accessing the ballot are convoluted and complex. Registering to vote remains more complicated than it needs to be. And hundreds of thousands of eligible voters are not participating because they can’t or because they’ve been misinformed and mistakenly believe they can’t.

It’s true.

OPINION

Last week, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton told lawmakers she remembers knocking on doors in her former district and hearing “many people” tell her they couldn’t get involved because they’d been in trouble.

According to Chicago Votes and other nonpartisan advocacy groups, about 4 million Illinoisans have a prior criminal record and are eligible to vote, but many of them don’t know that.

About 30,000 people each year are released from Illinois prisons and are eligible to vote, but they don’t register because no one tells them they can.

Nearly 20,000 people are in jails in Illinois at any given time awaiting trial, but they don’t have access to a ballot or a voting machine.

More than 40 organizations have been trying to fix this for years. Last year, legislation that would have helped passed both the Illinois Senate and House, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Now, Sen. Omar Aquino, a Chicago Democrat, is the chief sponsor of SB 2090, a second attempt to give detainees and former prisoners the help and information they need to exercise their right to vote. SB 2090 was approved by a state Senate committee last week by a 13-5 vote and now is before the full Senate.

Specifically, it would require jail and election administrators in counties around the state to work together to create a process to allow pre-trial detainees to vote whenever possible. It requires the state Corrections Department to provide voting information and voter registration applications to eligible voters when they have served their time and are released. The legislation was drafted by Chicago Votes, the Illinois Justice Project and ACLU Illinois.

It doesn’t fix everything. One of the advocates who worked on the language testified last week that prisoners in one county still won’t be able to vote if their home address is in another county. Advocates compromised on that type of situation because they understood it would be difficult for sheriffs to get the correct ballots from multiple locations outside of their own counties.

Still, SB 2090 would make exercising the right to vote possible for many more Illinoisans who have served their time or who have not yet been judged to have committed a crime.

“Real justice can only come about when we remove barriers to allow people the opportunity” to vote, Stratton told lawmakers last week.

I confess. I hadn’t really thought much about former prisoners voting or about access to the ballot being denied to people in jail until I heard about this effort a few years ago. Most of us don’t stop to think about this, I’d guess. And there probably are plenty of us who don’t really care whether former prisoners or people in jail get to vote. Why should we care?

I put that question to Stevie Valles, executive director of Chicago Votes. Here’s what he told me:

“America is blessed with the gift of democracy. We don’t reap the full rewards of this system when those who are eligible to participate in the democratic process are suppressed, implicitly or explicitly. When more people are given an opportunity to vote and have access to the information they need to vote, our democracy works. People in pre-trial detention have not been convicted of a crime and should not have their rights stripped away.

“As citizens of America,” Valles continued, “we should not uphold any barriers to the ballot. This bill helps to break down those barriers for millions of Illinoisans and makes our democracy stronger.”

Innocent until proven guilty. Once you’ve served your time, punishment should be over. One person, one vote. These are some of the bedrock principles of a functioning, healthy and equitable society. I cast a vote for that. 

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for political and government reforms.

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