The chapel and law library at the Cook County Jail look like any other polling places around the country, with a couple notable exceptions: the monochrome uniforms of the voters and the alert officers keeping an eye on them.
Although Illinoisans convicted of felonies lose their right to vote while serving prison sentences, most of the 6,000 people detained at the jail on Chicago’s southwest side maintain their voting privileges as they await trial or serve time for misdemeanors.
During November’s presidential election, around 2,200 people voted from four polling places across the jail’s eight-block campus. Corrections officials have opened the jail to visitors for monthly voter registration drives and civics lessons. They also offer two weekends of early voting and provide voter education materials, including informational videos that can be played on common-area TVs.
“If we’re going to have a significant role in returning individuals to our communities as stronger citizens, there’s no better way to do that than voting,” said Marlena Jentz, first assistant executive director for the Cook County Jail.
This commitment to ballot access by corrections officials is unusual in the United States. Illinois’ largest county is among just a few jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County and Washington, D.C., that allow in-person voting for some of those in jail.
Nationwide, there are around 746,000 people in local jails, and most are eligible to vote, according to a 2020 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But very few exercise their right to vote, the report found.
While national pressure grows to restore voting rights for people with previous felony convictions after their release from prison, less attention has been given to people sitting in local jails who are awaiting trial or have been convicted of misdemeanors that don’t affect their right to vote.
From the nine states that prevent people in jail from casting absentee ballots to the widespread confusion among those in detention about their voting eligibility, criminal justice activists say there are many barriers to ballot access in jails.
“Sheriffs have to work to understand who is eligible to vote and make that information clear to people in custody,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. “Otherwise, we’re disenfranchising thousands of people who actually have the highest stakes in these elections.”
In Wisconsin, where most of the 13,000 people detained in jails are eligible to vote, voting rights groups All Voting is Local, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin submitted records requests to each of the state’s 72 county sheriffs earlier this year. The group found that just over half the sheriffs said they had policies in place to encourage jail-based voting. For many incarcerated people, the group found several hurdles, including the state’s voter ID law.
The Badger State does not permit a jail ID as an acceptable form of identification to vote. People in jail who want to register to vote or request an absentee ballot must ask corrections personnel to make a copy of their confiscated driver’s license or other state-issued ID.
“This hasn’t been at the forefront of the discussion around voter accessibility,” said Shauntay Nelson, the Wisconsin state director for All Voting is Local. “This is the responsibility of the county jails, as well as election officials, administrators and the legislature. We have to work collaboratively.”
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After getting a records request from Wisconsin voting rights groups last year, Capt. Dave Riewestahl, the jail administrator for the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office, found that his 418-bed jail did not have voting policies. As an Army veteran who served overseas in Kosovo, he said he knows the value of the democratic process and defending constitutional rights. But, he said, the state laws presented serious challenges.
Because Wisconsin elections are administered at the city level, to offer in-person voting Riewestahl would have to invite workers from the county’s 18 towns to the jail. So, it made sense to limit voting to absentee by mail.
Still, with the help of local election officials and voting rights groups, Riewestahl has hosted two voter registration drives. Sitting behind a plexiglass and barred barrier in the visitor’s area, volunteers and election officials have registered more than a dozen new voters, sliding important documents through small slits in the divider and speaking through a closed-circuit telephone.
And while scanning the state-issued IDs of incarcerated individuals to meet the state’s voter ID laws does place a burden on his staff, Riewestahl is happy to help. He also has made the state’s voter registration website one of the three approved sites available on wall-mounted tablets in the communal area.
“The people in jail are the people in the community,” he said in an interview. “Voting is an important life skill that needs to be utilized whether someone is in jail or out of custody. If you are eligible and want to vote, the jail has the resources and support to make that happen.”
In New York City, the Legal Aid Society earlier this year lambasted City Hall, the Department of Correction and the state Board of Elections for failing to distribute voter registration information in the city’s jails before last month’s mayoral primary. Corrections officials disputed the letter, telling Gothamist they had “gone above and beyond to facilitate voter engagement.”
In Illinois, establishing polling locations in jails took legislation. In 2019, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a measure that allows Cook County to set up polling locations in its facilities. The law allows this only for counties with a population over 3 million people — which is only Cook County. Last March’s primary was the first election that the Chicago jail offered in-person voting.
Pritzker signed another measure requiring counties throughout the state to provide three 90-minute civics courses before people are released from prison. The state also requires jails and prisons to provide a voter registration form to people leaving prison or who are in jail.
“It’s a moment of light in a dark situation,” said Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes, which has registered close to 6,000 voters at the Cook County Jail since 2017. Dean has trained organizers in 30 counties across the country, in states from South Carolina to California, on how to make voting easier in local jails.
“Jail is an echo chamber of violence and trauma,” she added, “and this is a moment when people can realize that they can have an impact.”
Pritzker last month signed a sweeping voting bill with a provision allowing county sheriffs across the Prairie State to set up polling places for the 20,000 people in local jails. Previously, people in those jails could vote only by absentee ballot.
“Tell me why those awaiting trial, who are innocent until proven guilty, shouldn’t have the right to vote?” said Democratic state Rep. Maurice West, who sponsored the legislation.
No Republicans voted in favor of the final bill, and no GOP offices contacted by Stateline responded to requests for comment.
The new law allows local jails to expand in-person voting, but doesn’t require it. West, one of the bill’s sponsors, hopes the legislature will later make that expansion mandatory. He worries sheriffs outside of the Chicago area will be reluctant to expand voting access in their jails because of resource shortages and the stigma, especially in conservative areas, of allowing incarcerated people to vote.
As is done in many communities throughout rural Illinois, jail personnel in Tazewell County in the central part of the state hand out absentee ballots to incarcerated people who are eligible to vote. Corrections officers then return completed ballots to county election officials.
John Ackerman, the Tazewell County clerk, said it does not make logistical or financial sense to open a polling location within a jail that has just a 226-bed capacity. His precincts usually comprise 800 voters, cost $11,000 per election and require at least three election judges. He does not expect the county to take advantage of Illinois’ new law and expand in-person voting.
“We’ve been doing it for a number of years that way,” he said. “I don’t see a reason why we’d change that.”
Arizona and Colorado sheriffs are required by law to coordinate with county clerks to provide registration and mail-in ballot access to people who are detained, while Philadelphia and Rhode Island jails have held voter registration drives. Voting rights groups have also held registration drives in around 10 other states.
Misinformation around voting rights is rampant among people in the criminal justice system, said Brian Harrington, 29, who was released from prison in Illinois last April after 13 years of incarceration. Some people awaiting trial in county jails wrongly assume they can’t vote, he said, while others in prison incorrectly think they’ll never have the right to vote after they are released.
“I was clueless,” said Harrington, who now lives in Rockford, Illinois. “There’s this myth that you can’t vote because there’s so many things you can’t do when you get a felony. I just assumed I couldn’t vote.”
Twenty-one states, including Illinois, reinstate voting rights for people with felony convictions after they leave prison. But people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely in 11 states, while in 16 other states their voting rights are restored only after they complete parole, probation or all fines are paid. People never lose their voting rights in D.C., Maine and Vermont.
Harrington now works with Chicago Votes as a civic leader manager, working to boost political engagement among formerly incarcerated people and pressure state lawmakers to allow all adult citizens, including those serving time in prison, the right to vote. An effort to restore voting rights to those serving prison sentences fell short this legislative session, but the fight continues, Harrington said.
“The everyday person thinks of the person in prison as an afterthought, so the people in prison think of themselves as an afterthought,” he said. “We can show them the power of their voice. This can give them an opportunity to feel engaged in their communities.”
Julie Shelton, a retired lawyer and a member of the League of Women Voters of Chicago, has for several years helped facilitate voter registration drives at Cook County Jail. She recently assisted with in-person voting during the 2020 elections.
She has seen women do happy little dances after casting their ballots, singing, “I voted, I voted.” But she has also unsuccessfully tried to persuade others to register to vote.
Some men she spoke to either didn’t feel they knew enough about the candidates to vote or felt that their voice wouldn’t make a difference.
“Their freedom has been taken away,” Shelton said. “Their ability to be with their families and friends has been taken away. Their ability to create wealth or really to continue to be in society in any meaningful way has been taken away. Most of them are going to be let out of prison and we want them to be productive, contributing members of society. But they have to feel like they belong to society.”
This story was originally published in Stateline. It is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.