For the first time in this month’s primary election, Cook County Jail is its own polling precinct. Last year, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a law making the Cook County Jail a new polling station for Chicago, allowing ballot access for pretrial detainees. The new law, which was vetoed by Bruce Rauner in 2018, took effect on January 1, 2020. The law states that jails in counties of more than 3 million people are allowed to host a temporary polling place for those eligible to vote. This law only applies to Cook County for now. The other counties (101 total) in Illinois will continue to use mail-in ballots.
AP Photo-Sophia Tareen
In Cook County Jail, 98% of the population is awaiting trial. Co-deputy Director of Chicago Votes Jen Dean claims that about 20,000 people awaiting trial in Illinois have a constitutional right to vote. Chicago Votes is a nonpartisan nonprofit and education group that promotes voter registration and participation. The half-dozen temporary polling locations will be supervised by the Cook County Clerk’s Office and Chicago Board of Elections. Given the contentious climate of the presidential races and the race for state’s attorney and a congressional seat, the polls in the County’s jail are sure to garner much interest. For the primary, Sheriff Tom Dart worked with Chicago’s public television station to air two-minute videos inside the jail on the local candidates’ backgrounds and positions. He also invited educators to teach civics classes. Leading up to the March 17 election, voting will take place in the jail’s chapels, law library, gyms, and other special spaces.
Chicago Votes and Sheriff Tom Dart have been working with others like the League of Women Voters to register detainees at the Cook County Jail to vote since 2017. There is a false perception among some detainees that they have lost their right to vote. Detainees who are not convicted of anything did not lose their voting rights. The jail’s transient population also plays a role. “If you put a big registration drive on a Monday, they can be gone by Tuesday,” says Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. “It’s a moving target.… In correctional settings, they don’t go out of their way to encourage voting. Then you add the lack of knowledge on the fact that you have the right to vote. You aren’t convicted of anything yet, so you have your voting rights.”
This election cycle alone, Chicago Votes made 11 visits and registered nearly 1,500 inmates to vote. In previous election cycles, detainees could vote via an absentee ballot. The process of voting in this way is cumbersome for detainees. Co-Deputy Director Jen Dean asserts, “The operations department in the jail puts the list together, which sends the list to the mailroom, the mailroom director sends a letter to the Chicago Board of Elections, who then prepare ballot applications for everyone on that list, which goes back to the jail.” Volunteers sort them by division and tier, and detainees fill out applications, which are then mailed back to election officials. But if detainees miss one of two windows to apply, they’re not going to vote.” The new polling station will allow for same-day voter registration and the ability to vote in person, rather than voting absentee. “The only people in this state that are constitutionally ineligible to vote are people that are in prison,” said state Representative La Shawn Ford. The new law “makes sure that every county, 102 across the state, did not violate the detainees’ right to vote.”
Over four decades after the O’Brien vs. Skinner case, the Supreme Court preserved the right to vote for people in pretrial detention. Many detainees remained from exercising that right because states do not have procedures in place to allow access. Illinois is no longer one of those states. “Illinois will continue to stand strong, even as our country takes a dangerous turn toward deeper disenfranchisement of minority communities,” Governor Pritzker declared. “Especially as the Voting Rights Act remains gutted, especially as jurisdictions across the nation purge voter rolls and restrict registrations in college towns and communities of color, here in Illinois, we’ll do our best to live up to the ideals of our democracy.