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In 12 states, the right to vote is forfeited indefinitely following a felony conviction, or they are restored only after an extended parole period or with a governor’s pardon. In 22 states, they are restored after an extended period following time served, and various additional requirements such as the payment of outstanding fees. In 14 states, including Illinois, the right is restored automatically after release—but a lack of information has still kept voters from the polls.

Kilroy Watkins, for example, remembers knocking on a cell door trying to get a corrections officer’s attention for water only six months ago. After he served his nearly 30-year sentence, he still didn’t realize until his release that his right to vote was restored.

He is now in shock to have stood behind Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker as he signed two new voting laws on Wednesday—HB 2541, known as the “Civics in Prison” bill and SB 2090 or the “Voting in Jails” bill.

Kilroy Watkins was released from incarceration in January, after which he learned his right to vote had been restored.

“There’s a perception that once you’re convicted you lose all voting rights, we just never questioned or investigated,” Watkins said. “At no time was I provided information about my voting rights or civic duties.”

That’s why he said the new “Civics in Prison” law is essential. The law, pushed forward by a coalition of voting rights and criminal justice advocates, will establish civics education programs so that within a year prior to release, those incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice will receive peer-taught classes on government, voting, and current events.

Depaul University Professor Dr. Christina Rivers, who leads a civic education class at Stateville Correctional Center, part of a nationwide program, was part of the advocates organizing for this legislation. She is now working on the curriculum before the programs begin in January.

When Rivers teaches her Depaul and Stateville students, she includes a course on law, politics, and mass incarceration. She includes information about felony disenfranchisement, prison gerrymanders, and voting rights for pre-trial detainees. “I close out the class on the political implications of mass incarceration … paying attention to problems of mass incarceration and representation,” Rivers said. “The bulk of people incarcerated are people of color, so to the extent that they can’t vote, this suppresses a signification portion of voters of color.”

Rivers said while working on the legislation, there was great emphasis on having the courses be taught by peer instructors, because it would carry more resonance.

Depaul University Professor Dr. Christina Rivers had been involved in a civics education program at Stateville Correctional Center before advocating for a law to provide incarcerated people near release an education on government and their right to vote. She’s now working on the curriculum.

Watkins agrees. “These guys relate to each other in a more direct way,” he said. When lessons of civic engagement come from the outside, he said, it can cause those in prison to shut down.

“They say, well, you people don’t understand, you’re from suburban Carbondale or down south. I’m from the city of Chicago, I deal with police issues, homelessness, and disenfranchisement,” he said. “These guys relate to each other in a more direct way.” 

A second voting law, the “Voting in Jails” law, will establish a polling location at Cook County Jail for those awaiting trial, and establish a vote-by-mail program in other counties. It will make history during the 2020 presidential primary as the first polling place at a jail.

“We’re making sure that 20,000 people detained pretrial each year don’t miss out on the opportunity to have their voices heard,” Pritzker said at the bill signing ceremony at St. Leonard’s Ministries, residential community center that gives people coming out of incarceration support services.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton championed a new law which will establish a polling place at Cook County Jail and mail-in voting programs in other counties for those held in jail but not convicted of a crime.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, who has worked on these kinds of bills since her time in the state legislature, pointed to the financial reason detained individuals lose their voting access. “The 20,000 people who sit in county jails … throughout the state have not been convicted of an offense and most linger in our jails because they don’t have the resources to post bond,” Stratton said. “They should have access to the ballot.”

That was the case in 1991 when Nassir Blackwell was held on a million-dollar bond in Will County, not yet convicted. After more than 20 years of incarceration, he got involved in prisoner civic engagement advocacy. “I was aware of my right to vote, and I was demanding that right to vote and jail guards were telling me ‘go lock up,’” Blackwell said. “Had I posted my bond I would be exercising my right to vote at the ballot.” 

Nassir Blackwell remembers when he was denied his right to vote in jail, prior to his conviction.

Ami Gandhi, director of Voting Rights and Civic Empowerment with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said though Illinois is one of the more liberal states for voting rights, a lack of information or access has kept people wrapped up in the department of corrections or in jails from exercising their right. This primarily effects people of color.

“Our racial disparities in voter registration and voter participation in Illinois are worse than the national average, despite having the voter protections on paper,” Gandhi said. “We do see disproportionate effects of mass incarceration and criminalization on black and brown communities in particular.”

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights has more information on its website about the civics education and voting in jail laws.

Alexandra Arriaga

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....