Credit: courtesy Chicago Votes
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Just this spring, Cook County Jail became the first jail in the country to be a polling location. This milestone achievement came after a coalition effort led in part by Chicago Votes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has been registering voters and facilitating an in-person, absentee ballot program in the jail for the past three years. Since the program’s start, Chicago Votes has worked to register over 5,000 voters in Cook County Jail. Such an influential organization, working to change voting rights and to put power in the hands of young Chicagoans, is precisely what Illinois needs, especially right now.

In Illinois, 76,000 people are behind bars and roughly 42 percent of Illinois’ population has a criminal or arrest record. With the exception of people in prison, all citizens in Illinois have the right to vote. However, barriers to participation in our democracy for people impacted by the American legal system extend far beyond felony disenfranchisement.

The jail serving as a polling location, allowing for voting machines to be brought into the facility, protects the enfranchisement of those who rely on same day voter registration–the majority of people in the jail. However, there has been uncertainty on whether voting machines will be allowed in the jail this November. If the jail and the Chicago Board of Elections decide to only run an absentee ballot program, a majority of the jail could be disenfranchised, given there are numerous first time voters and people who move frequently.

Not to mention that today, Cook County Jail continues to be a coronavirus hot spot where 40 out of every 1,000 people are infected, and access to medical attention is severely lacking.

During this unprecedented time in history, with constant and everchanging news about the impact of COVID-19 and the unrest sparked by police violence, remaining an active participant in our democracy amplifies our voices. Holding our elected officials accountable and advocating for issues important to our communities is as crucial as ever. With the Illinois Department of Corrections operating at 120 percent capacity and with our community members in jails and prisons increasingly isolated and at risk of illness, advocating for a more inclusive democracy is vital.

Had Illinois not abolished parole in 1978, we would have had an established pathway to early release and today’s decarceration efforts would face fewer obstacles. If people in prison had the right to vote, elected officials would be held accountable for taking their needs into consideration. When we vote, advocate, mobilize, and storytell, we create a better Illinois.

That’s where Chicago Votes comes in; through a range of programs and initiatives, they are making great strides on this front.

Their Unlock Civics initiative addresses the intersection of civics and the legal system, ensuring that democracy includes justice-involved individuals. Building off their 2019 accomplishments of Senate Bill 2090, Voting in Jail, and House Bill 2541, Civics in Prison, their 2020 Unlock Civics legislative platform includes restoring the right to vote to people in prison, creating a discretionary parole system, and more.

Outside of the criminal justice system, Chicago Votes is constantly helping people to the polls. Their Parade to the PollsTM program allows them to partner with CPS high schools and local colleges and universities to march students to vote, many for the first time. Beyond just voting, Chicago Votes is truly changing the landscape of civic engagement in the city, in conversations about school funding, creating art that challenges the status quo, advocating for legislation, and more. Another example is their Give A Sh*t Collective, which fuses politics and culture in the hopes of creating a more authentic narrative about democratic participation. It’s about community impact and tools for transformation.

If the current crisis of COVID-19, intensifying financial insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, the rampant spread of illness in our prisons and jails, and the organizing taking place to address police violence have shown us anything, it is that leadership matters and community organizing works. Learn more at

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