GettyImages-1211040117.jpg

Like voters across the country, those inside Cook County jail are revving up for one of the most important and crucial elections in recent decades. However, in addition to the presidential race, Katrina Phidd, communications associate at Chicago Votes, says that voters inside have been particularly intrigued by local races.

“A lot of people are really really interested once we tell them that there are going to be judges on the ballot,” Phidd told Prism. “A number of them—most of them—are already aware that that the presidential race is happening, but many of them don’t know that we have local races happening as well so once we tell that to people and we tell them that they get to vote for their judges and their judge might be on the ballot, then the conversation kind of continues and people are really eager to register, and they’re telling their friends like ‘Hey, like come on and register.’”

This year is the first time Cook County Jail will be a polling place itself, allowing pretrial detainees in the county that are eligible to vote to engage in same-day voter registration and cast their ballots in person instead of voting by mail. This historic change comes as a result of the passage of SB 2090, a state bill signed into law this January that allows for easier and more widespread access to the ballot for people detained pretrial throughout Illinois. 

According to the law, election authorities in Illinois counties with a population below 3 million must facilitate the vote by mail process for eligible voters in jail. In counties with a population over 3 million, election authorities must establish a temporary branch polling place inside the county jail. This year, only Cook County has a population large enough to make it eligible for its own jail polling site, making it not just the first site of its kind in the state, but in the country as well.

Chicago Votes, a local group that aims to expand and increase access to democracy throughout the county, was instrumental in getting the legislation passed. Their Unlock Civics program focuses on the intersection between the criminal legal system and civic engagement. In addition to overseeing this year’s primary and general elections inside, the group also sends volunteers into the Cook County Jail for voter registration drives and civics education classes. They lead courtwatch programs as well.

As reported by Prism, an overwhelming majority of those detained in U.S. jails are eligible to vote but structural barriers and misinformation keep those inside from casting their ballots. For organizers who wish to dismantle those barriers and establish an in-jail polling site similar to that in Cook County, Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes, says that the first step is to understand your state’s election code.

“Every state has a different set of rules for elections so that’s important to understand first before you get into this work,” said Dean in an interview with Prism. “Some states require IDs, some states do not. We were really lucky that Illinois had already passed things like early voting, vote by mail, online voter registration, being able to request an absentee ballot for no reason, so we were really set up for success.” 

Amidst that, grasping the political landscape of your state and knowing where elected officials stand is also crucial. Dean says that organizers from Just Democracy, a coalition of which Chicago Votes is a part, started drafting the legislation for SB 2090 in January of 2018 only to have then-Gov. Bruce Rauner veto the bill and remove almost everything. The group decided to hold the legislation knowing there was an upcoming gubernatorial election and that the Democratic challenger might be more amenable to their demands. When Rauner lost his 2018 election bid, SB 2090 had a path to being passed with more of its original design fully intact as the state had elected Gov. Jay Robert Pritzker, someone Dean says “actually cares about people inside.”

The legislation was ultimately passed in 2019 but the organizers noted that while they were lobbying on behalf of the bill they were also doing critical work inside the Cook County Jail to ensure that the legislation could actually be implemented. That included hosting monthly and later biweekly voter registration drives inside, collaborating with the Chicago Board of Elections and clerk’s office to develop the logistical plan and trainings for how to actually run these in-jail elections, and then working with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a group that does poll watching inside the jail.

Dean also notes that assessing both your opposition and your allies is crucial for not just getting this type of legislation passed, but making it actionable as well. At times, support and pushback can come from unexpected people.

“Understanding who your allies are in this work is extremely important—and understanding who your allies are based on their behaviors,” said Dean. “So for example, Tom Dart who was the chair of the Cook County Jail was extremely supportive of this from the start, so his staff did everything possible to make this program a success, which was great. The biggest pushback that we had was working with the Chicago Board of Elections and the election authorities. That is where all of the stress was, that is where we had to constantly go back and forth to make sure the polling machines were in the jail.”

Dean says the Chicago Board of Elections should have been a source of support from the very beginning but that the board hasn’t run elections in city jails for nearly 50 years.

“1974 was the last time they ran elections with the jail,” said Dean. “So since 1974, it’s been blatant voter suppression.”

In addition to the Chicago Board of Elections, the Sheriffs Association as well as a handful of Republican leaders were also opposing forces.  

Despite the three and a half year-long journey from the conception of the bill to its passage, the work for groups like Chicago Votes is not over. Throughout this year, they have still been engaging in voter registration and civic education inside. However, it’s a process that has been slowed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. September was the first time volunteers were able to enter inside the jail in over six months. Because they have to bring markedly fewer volunteers and engage in extra safety precautions such as requiring volunteers to get tested the day before, wearing masks, and consistently sanitizing hands, the process is far slower than registration drives held earlier in the year. According to the Chicago Defender, the group was able to register nearly 1,500 people inside across 11 visits in advance of the primary election. In the two weekends in September and October that they have sent in volunteers, they have successfully registered 157.

“But also because the jail is a polling location now, voters in the jail have access to same day voter registration,” said Phidd. “So, even if we aren’t able to register them these past few weekends, they will be able to register while they vote.”

Chicago Votes is now pivoting to fighting disenfranchisement within prisons. They are hoping that Illinois will become the third state after Maine and Vermont to allow voting in prison. Their aim is to allow for everyone incarcerated by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) who is a U.S. citizen and over 18 years old to vote through the passage of HB 4377, a bill that would change the state statute on voting in prison by amending the state constitution.

“We hear all the time that Black Lives Matter, and that people want to value and uplift Black voices in the U.S.,” said Dean. “However, 55% of people detained in IDOC are Black and therefore there is no political representation.”

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.