Groups push Rauner on bill to ease voting by jail inmates

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Joy Williams at podium

Chicago Votes Organizer Joy Williams addresses crowd at August 16 press conference

A group of public officials and members of Chicago-based progressive organizatons on Thursday called on Governor Bruce Rauner to sign a bill that would make it easier for eligible detainees in Illinois jails to vote.

The bill, which has been passed by both houses, would establish a temporary polling place in the Cook County Jail and require jails elsewhere in the state to facilitate voting-by-mail opportunities. It would also require the Illinois Department of Corrections to inform individuals released from prison of their voting rights.

“House Bill 4469 is about allowing all populations that have been systematically marginalized and treated like second-class citizens the opportunity to hold all of us accountable,” said Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, community justice staff attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, Thursday morning at a press conference organized by Chicago Votes, an organization devoted to encouraging potential voters to take part in the election process.

“Any pushback of House Bill 4469 is essentially a stance that black and brown communities and low income people should not be politically empowered,” Mbekeani-Wiley, who helped draft the bill, added.

“Gov. Rauner believes every citizen eligible to vote should be able to vote. The legislature has sent some 600 pieces of legislation to the Governor’s desk—we are reviewing each bill. We will be talking about each one of them at the appropriate time,” said Beth Tomev, a spokesperson for Rauner, in an email.

Chicago Votes collected 28,000 signatures requesting Rauner sign the bill into law, Chicago Votes organizer Joy Williams said at the press conference.

Cook County Clerk David Orr cited the country’s long history of depriving African-Americans the right to vote, and praised Illinois for allowing convicted felons to retain voting rights, unlike many other states. He said the bill would make it easier for everyone to exercise their rights, including those in the county jails, most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted.

According to the ACLU of Illinois, just eight of the state’s 102 counties currently have mechanisms in place to ensure pretrial detainees can vote.

Illinois State Representative Robyn Gabel said the bill, which would take effect in 2020 if signed into law, could lead to an estimated 50,000 more people voting per year.

Voting laws for those with criminal convictions vary widely around the country: Ten states permanently strip some or all convicted felons of their voting rights, while two states—Maine and Vermont—allow convicted felons to vote from prison. Illinois is one of 14 states that automatically restores voting rights to people with felony convictions upon release from prison.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Illinois conducted an informal survey of 170 recently released prisoners and found that nearly half were not aware their voting rights had been restored.