(Chicago) – With Election Day approaching on November 6, states across the country have differing laws on the voting rights of people with criminal records.
Illinois citizens with a criminal record have the right to vote, as long as they are not serving time in jail or prison. Those being held in jail without having been convicted also have the right to vote.
Although Illinois citizens who have been convicted of a crime are not allowed to vote while incarcerated, they automatically regain their right to vote following release. Men and women who have criminal records and are living in the community, including those on probation or parole, retain the right to vote.
“In Illinois, if you’ve been arrested or incarcerated, that doesn’t mean you can’t vote,” said TASC Policy Director Laura Brookes.
Even after regular voter registration deadlines have passed (28 days prior to Election Day), Illinois law allows “grace period” registration and voting all the way up to and through Election Day. The Illinois State Board of Elections maintains a list of grace period registration/voting locations. The Cook County Clerk’s office maintains a similar list, as do other local county clerk’s offices.
Varying Laws across the US
Across the country, laws that restrict the voting rights of people with criminal records vary from state to state. According to The Sentencing Project, “an estimated 6.1 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased.”
Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not restrict voting rights based on convictions or incarceration. Thirty states deny voting rights to people on felony probation, and 34 states do not allow people to vote while on felony parole. Twelve states continue to deny voting rights to some or all people who have successfully fulfilled prison, parole, or probation sentences. In Florida, for example, individuals must wait five to seven years after a sentence has been completed, including parole and probation time, before they can apply to have their voting rights restored. Additionally, the application, once submitted, can take years to process.
Many advocacy groups have called for changes to laws that disenfranchise voters. One of the demands of the recent country-wide prison strike included restoration of voting rights to all confined citizens, as well as those who have served their sentences. “Prisoners are beginning to coalesce around the push to regain the vote as a means of forwarding the cause of prison reform,” reported The Guardian.
As criminal justice reforms have swept across the country, voting rights of people with criminal records are among the policy changes being considered. Florida, for example, will vote in November on whether to restore voting rights to people with prior felony convictions who have served their time.
Reforms in Illinois
There are efforts underway in Illinois, too, to protect voting rights for individuals with justice system involvement. This past spring, the Illinois legislature approved House Bill 4469 that would have “allowed an opportunity for eligible persons detained pre-trial to vote, and provide those leaving Illinois jails and prisons with information on voting rights for individuals living with records, including the basic knowledge that in Illinois, eligible citizens have their voting rights restored upon release,” according to ACLU Illinois. In August 2018, however, the Governor issued an amendatory veto on the bill, striking portions of it. To prevent the bill from dying altogether, the legislature will have to either vote with a three-fifths majority in each chamber to override the veto or with a simple majority to accept the amendment.
One local group, Chicago Votes, has gained national attention for its program within the Cook County Jail. Sanctioned by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, volunteers visit the jail and register people to vote. As of August 2018, over 1,800 individuals had been registered as a result of their work.
“Just because we’re in jail doesn’t define me or who I am,” said one of the individuals interviewed. “I’m still a human being, and I still have an opinion. I still would like to be heard in some type of way, especially a positive way, even with me being in the place that I’m in.”