This is the first general election when Illinois jails are required to give detainees the opportunity to vote. But early signs show little change in how many ballots are actually cast from behind bars.
The law, which took effect Jan. 1, is meant to ensure that county sheriffs and local election officials have a process in place for people awaiting trial to vote from jail—whether by mail or in-person. It also directs county jails and Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) facilities to provide people who have not been convicted with information about their voting rights.
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael said, regardless of the law, the county has always offered voting services to jail inmates.
Michael said about a half dozen people awaiting trial in McLean County Jail requested a ballot for the 2020 general election. She said that’s about average over the course of her 11-year tenure. More than 200 people are held in the jail on an average day.
Michelle Hernandez, staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, said McLean County’s stagnant participation isn’t unique. After the primary election, the ACLU partnered with other community organizations to gather data from county jails and found that, for most counties, the numbers haven't changed much.
Hernandez said the ACLU attributes that, in part, to a lack of outreach to detainees about their voting rights—and the other pressures administrators were under as a result of the pandemic.
“People were sort of locking down because of COVID-19. We feel that has had an impact on the reach that advocates have had within the jails, and then also, because they’ve been dealing with COVID outbreaks, our sense is that they’ve had more pressing matters—especially for the midterm” election, Hernandez said. “For the general election, we are hoping that the response is a little different.”
Hernandez said prior to the new law, the ACLU was aware of only a handful of jails that offered in-person voting opportunities. Technically, all jails allow people awaiting trial to request a vote-by-mail ballot, she said, but they would have to ask for the opportunity themselves.
Jails are now required to put up signs about detainees voting rights, but Hernandez said where those signs get posted and how visible they are for the jail population varies by facility. The pandemic also has made it difficult for advocates to ensure that requirement is being met, she said.
“It’s really been hard to verify, I think, on our part what information is up, where it is and how effective it is,” Hernandez said. “We’re still in the process of gathering that information.”
That’s complicated by the fact that there’s no data reporting requirement baked into the legislation, she said. The ACLU and partner organizations have been requesting participation numbers and other information from sheriffs and election officials through the Freedom of Information Act.
Even with the new law, some criminal justice reform advocates argue there are still barriers for inmates to vote. According to the non-partisan Prison Policy Institute that advocates against mass incarceration, confusion about eligibility is one of the biggest factors. But there also are issues like having access to information needed to register, like a driver’s license or social security number, or even delays in jail mail making it difficult to meet registration deadlines.
Hernandez said once the ACLU can crunch the numbers from Illinois jails, advocates will have a better idea of whether additional legislation is needed to facilitate voter participation.
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