Prisoner Voting Population Grows as Illinois Bill Extends Polling Sites to County Jails
The push to restrict voting rights and limit access to polling locations has gained momentum in the past several months. Advancing the false claims of excessive fraud and a rigged election by former President Donald Trump, state legislatures across the country have passed laws reducing voting hours, eliminating mail-in ballots, closing polling sites, and other restrictive measures.
Contrary to Republicans’ assertions, these laws adversely affect people of color and those of lower socio-economic status. For instance, some states have prohibited polling sites to open on Sundays when many African Americans traditionally cast ballots after church services.
However, one state is looking to buck this trend by expanding access to polling locations. In June 2021, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Senate Bill 825 which allows those who register to vote by mail remain on the list permanently and, more significantly, gives sheriffs the ability to open polling sites at their county jails.
Previously, only the sheriff in Cook County, the state’s largest jail, could establish a polling site at the county’s jail. Now, any county with less than 3 million residents can set up a temporary polling site at their jail.
“With attacks on voting rights on the rise in states across the nation, Illinois is proud to stand up for a strong, secure, and accessible democracy,” Gov. Pritzker said.
Yet some would argue that Illinois did not go far enough. The bill does not allow those convicted of an offense to vote while in custody, only those who are awaiting trial. Tellingly, only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote, enfranchising less than one percent of the country’s incarcerated.
Washington D.C. also gives prisoners the right to vote, but the District goes one step farther: prisoners can even run for public office while incarcerated. This might seem like a pipe dream for most, but the impossible recently became possible. Joel Castón, a 44-year-old African American prisoner who has been incarcerated for 26 years in a D.C. prison, was elected to the office of neighborhood commissioner. Castón’s constituents include his fellow prisoners, who voted for him, and those outside prison walls. [See pg. 30-31.]
To perform his duties, Castón is allowed to use a computer to approve liquor licenses, schedule repairs to the neighborhood’s sidewalks and street, address budget issues, and other tasks associated with his office.
While the new Illinois law does not push as far as it could, it represents a hopeful trend to expand rather than restrict voting access to those previously denied their right to cast a ballot. Whether they will have candidates to vote for is another question.
Sources: chicago.suntimes.com, ABC News