Illinois House Bill 4469 is an initiative that, if passed, would affect inmates throughout the state. Drafted this past January with an implementation date of 2020, the bill consists of three major parts. It would turn Cook County Jail into an official polling location, would implement election processes at every jail in Illinois, and would provide “Know Your Rights” guides and voter registration forms to inmates upon release. This year the bill was passed in the Illinois General Assembly, but Governor Bruce Rauner has refused to sign it without an amendatory veto of its third provision.
Drafted in coalition with Chicago Votes, ACLU Illinois, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and other local organizations, the bill seeks to make voting easier for inmates in Illinois, where there are four million people with a past felony conviction and 20,000 in pretrial detention, all of whom are eligible.
Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, formerly a staff attorney at the Shriver Center, was the head of the legislative draft committee. She’d written an article for the Chicago Reporter about the lack of awareness that convicts and prisoners are entitled to vote. She says the idea for the bill “really came from Representative Juliana Stratton. She approached me about wanting to work together to address voting in jail.”
Khadine Bennett is the director of advocacy and intergovernmental affairs for ACLU Illinois. She and Mbekeani-Wiley worked with groups including Chicago Votes, Illinois PIRG, and the League of Women Voters to initiate the process. Then they brought the Cook County Board of Elections in. “To see where the interest was,” she says.
“We then decided there are three things we need to do,” Bennett continues. “One, we need to have language, and then once we have a bill we need to get it through the general assembly.” The last of their goals was to create guides for inmates being released from facilities that would explain their voting rights.
“A lot of people think we’re like Florida,” says Bennett. “Most folks don’t know that they have the ability to vote after they’ve been to prison or jail or been arrested.”
The initiative was divided into three groups; a bill drafting group, a lobbying group, and a publication team that created the content for the inmate voting rights guides. According to Bennett, however, everyone was involved in anything they wanted to be. “It was all a group effort,” she says.
Mbekeani-Wiley agrees. In addition to heading the legislative draft committee, she says, “I also lobbied with Khadine for the bill in Springfield.” She and Bennett spent nearly every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from January to the end of May pitching their plan and negotiating with the opposition “whenever the general assembly was in session, basically,” Mbekeani-Wiley says.
Bennett was also heavily involved in creating the “Know Your Rights” guides, a process led by the ACLU.
“One of the things that [the ACLU] felt we could add value to was letting people know that they had rights,” Bennett says.
Local organization Chicago Votes has led the implementation process, coordinating in-person initiatives at Cook County Jail that educate and advocate for inmates since fall 2017.
Cook County Jail admits about 100,000 people annually, and about 90 percent of those incarcerated at Cook County Jail have the right to vote. Jen Dean, Chicago Votes’ deputy director, has been facilitating election processes there this election season. Saturday, October 27, was “our second in-person voting day,” she says.
“We’re facilitating between the sheriff’s department and Board of Elections,” Dean says. “It involves some hand-holding. The sheriff’s department doesn’t always understand all of the election processes, so we walk them through all of that.”
At Cook County Jail, inmates are currently voting using the absentee ballot system and nonelectric privacy booths. “When [Cook County] does become a polling location, we will be able to have voting machines,” says Dean. For now , the jail is the only one in Illinois that’s actively implementing an election process at all.
Although HB 4469 passed in both houses, Governor Rauner indicated he would only sign the bill with an amendatory veto that eliminated the distribution of “Know Your Rights” guides and voter registration forms to inmates upon release.
“One of the frustrations about the veto is that we worked pretty hard to figure out a process that would work,” Bennett says. There’s already a process for giving inmates reentry packets for their transitions back into society. “It was just a matter of handing out two [more] pieces of paper,” she says. “We were willing to prepare and pay for the materials.”
It seemed like a simple, elegant solution: give people information they require as they left the facility. “It was really disappointing that he chose to get rid of that part of it,” says Bennett. “It’s surprising and troubling that he chose to veto it. Getting people information about their voting rights is something that all people in Illinois should want.”
Mbekeani-Wiley chalks the decision up to partisan politics. “I think that it’s a very partisan issue, to be honest,” she said. “I think that [the governor] may not believe that it’s in his best interest to let people with criminal records know that they have the right to vote. I think he doesn’t view that population of individuals as worthy of knowing their right to vote.”
Dean too sees the clear violation of rights that exists in prison election processes. “Voting in jail is [a] perfect example of voting barriers and voting suppression,” she said.
While the bill is currently at a standstill, Mbekeani-Wiley remains positive that we may see voting machines in Cook County Jail by 2020. “It is something that takes time to organize, and I think we heavily rely on organizations like Chicago Votes to implement initiatives.”
Bennett has a similar outlook, and is confident that everyone involved shares her commitment to the issue: “It was important to all of us. It’s not just something we’re going to let die.”