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Prison polling places? Some lawmakers, advocates want to restore voting rights to those behind bars

Lawmakers hope to bring up legislation restoring voting rights to incarcerated people next month during veto session, but opponents of the bill, including the Illinois State Board of Elections, argue the proposed measure is unconstitutional.

The Menard Correctional Center in Downstate Chester in 2011.
The Menard Correctional Center in Downstate Chester in 2011.
Paul Newtown/The Southern Illinoisan-AP file

Some state lawmakers and voting rights advocates hope to pass legislation next month that would restore voting rights to people in prisons, a change proponents say could help connect them “to a process that’s for the betterment of society.”

But opponents of the bill, including the Illinois State Board of Elections, argue the proposed measure is unconstitutional.

According to an amendment to a Senate bill, a person convicted of a felony or otherwise serving a sentence in a state correctional facility “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 or not later than five days before the first election following the person’s confinement.”

Under current law, that right is denied until the person is released from prison.

Brian Harrington, who leads policy work at Chicago Votes, said that while not everyone who is incarcerated would vote if the bill passes, having the opportunity to do so would “put the onus on individuals to try to live up to being a better person” by allowing them to be involved in their communities.

Harrington offered his own experience.

Charged with murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison when he was 16, he spent his incarceration focused on “making sure that if I ever got another opportunity that I’d have enough skill, enough maturity and emotional stability to be successful” as well as bringing awareness to juvenile justice and the flaws in the legal system.

After 13 years in prison, and with the pandemic turning correctional centers into hotspots, Harrington was released from Dixon Correctional Center last April, 12 years early.

Harrington argued against those who may think people in prisons shouldn’t be allowed to vote, saying “well, I shouldn’t be able to be counted on the census. That county shouldn’t be able to get money for my body. I shouldn’t be able to count that way either.”

“I should have the right to hold someone accountable,” Harrington said. “The fact that you’re telling me ... I’m worth something but I don’t have a voice? I don’t understand.”

Chicago Votes is working with state Rep. LaShawn Ford and Sen. Mike Simmons, both Chicago Democrats, on the legislation.

Ford said the hope is to vote on the bill during the Legislature’s veto session, slated for the last two weeks of October. The bill is currently in the Legislature’s Rules Committee, which is where bills are often sent to languish.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford in 2019.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford in 2019.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Ford said the bill could “help people reform” by getting them involved in “the way government works and civic responsibility.”

“I believe that anybody, when they participate in democracy, when they feel that they’re responsible citizens, ... they are connected to a process that’s for the betterment of society,” Ford said. “That’s what we want people who are locked up to be — connected to a system that improves humanity.”

Simmons said discussions are ongoing, and he feels “we should move to restore the voting rights of incarcerated people as soon as possible.”

The legislation would require the state’s board of elections to work with prisons to allow for voting by mail for eligible prisoners.

State Sen. Mike Simmons in February.
State Sen. Mike Simmons in February.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the state’s election authority, said the board members’ opposition isn’t “philosophical,” but based on the bill’s constitutionality, which they believe is “problematic.”

“What we have said is ‘change the constitution first, and then let’s do this,’” Dietrich said.

Arguments around the bill’s constitutionality hinge on a section that says a person’s voting rights shall be restored “not later than” completion of their sentence.

Proponents view that as an opening to change when incarcerated people can vote, while opponents say that line means a person can vote after they’re released.

State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, who voted no on the bill in a committee earlier this year, argued “the constitution seems to be pretty straightforward about a person losing their right to vote” while they’re in prison.

Inmates exit a building at the Vienna Correctional Center, a federal prison in Vienna, Ill, in 2011.
Inmates exit a building at the Vienna Correctional Center, a federal prison in Vienna, Ill, in 2011.
Steve Jahnke/The Southern-AP file

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker didn’t offer the Democratic governor’s stance on the bill, saying only “the administration looks forward to reviewing the legislation and continuing conversations as it makes its way through the General Assembly.”

Katrina Phidd, the communications and digital strategy manager of Chicago Votes, said the measure received 63 votes in favor in a House roll call and the group is currently working on shoring up support for a Senate roll call.

Ford said the bill could help people in prisons “be a part of shaping public policy.”

“They know better than anybody how we can reform prisons, they’ve been a part of it,” Ford said. “They should be engaged in public policy, as relates to criminal justice reform, and they should feel welcome to the table.”