Misinformation impedes voting rights of Illinois’ formerly incarcerated

Illinois is among the few states where formerly incarcerated regain their voting rights after release, but many are misinformed and unaware.

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Photo by José Alejandro Córcoles

A Cook County Jail inmate registers to vote with the help of a Chicago Votes volunteer on Jan. 14, 2018.

Cedric Frison became politically “woke” inside Vienna State Prison in downstate Illinois. And that’s not unusual.

Frison’s awakening happened after the haze of drug addiction evaporated. It came from watching the fallout from the 2010 midterm elections after Barack Obama won the White House.

“You see how everybody came out and voted for Obama — people who never voted before … But then nobody showed up for the midterms, and they wonder why he couldn’t push his agenda across,” said Frison who had cycled in and out of the state’s correctional system for 15 years on various drug charges.

Showing up at the polls for local races like the city’s upcoming municipal elections matters, he said. And that’s especially true for formerly incarcerated individuals who are often not part of the electoral process. To change that, Frison in 2018 became a deputy registrar to ensure people with records have access to the ballot box. Since then, he has registered nearly 50 people, including some with records.

Frison is among 37 other formerly incarcerated deputy registrars for the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated, an Austin group that has been registering people like him since 2009 to galvanize their voting and political power to change public policies affecting them.

Registering justice-involved individuals has its challenges, since many believe their contact with the criminal justice system prohibits them from voting.

But that’s not the case in Illinois, which is one of the few states that restores an individual’s voting rights — although not automatically — upon release from prison. The onus is on the individual to re-register to vote. That can be problematic for the nearly 30,000 inmates released from Illinois prisons every year. Many are unaware that they regain their voting rights and others are told incorrectly by probation and parole officials that they cannot vote because of their criminal records. In Illinois people on parole or probation can register and vote.

“A lot of people come out of jails and prisons believing that they cannot vote,” said NAEFI founder Benneth Lee, who spent 15 years in Illinois correctional facilities. “They hear things in other states and believe it applies to them here.”

That is not surprising since laws in 34 states disenfranchise people who are on probation or on parole. And 12 of those states permanently disenfranchise people with records even after they’ve completed their prison, probation and parole sentences, according to the Sentencing Project.

Felony disenfranchisement laws primarily impact Blacks, who make up a disproportionate share of the prison population. Nationally, an estimated 6.1 million people are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, according to 2016 figures from the Sentencing Project.

A national movement to restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated has been gaining ground. That led to a ballot initiative in Florida to change the state constitution to restore the voting rights to nearly 1.4 million formerly incarcerated individuals last year.

Lee has been on the frontlines of that battle. He recruits the formerly incarcerated to become deputy registrars to register anyone including people with records. It’s more organic, he said, when people with records explain to peers how their vote can shape public policies from sentencing reforms to electing judges and prosecutors.

“They go back to the communities where they come from, where they hustle at, where they got high at and show them that they are clean and turned their lives around and how people need to vote for legislators who can change these restrictive laws that deny people with records certain business licenses.”

But the toughest battle, Lee said, is debunking misinformation. “Parole agents, social workers, case managers, councilors tell convicted felons they can’t vote … [and] if they do they can violate their parole,” he said.

“A lot of what we do is try to raise awareness that they can vote,” Lee said, adding that more education and outreach are needed to inform people with records  about their rights and the organizations that serve them. During the 2016 presidential primary, Lee urged Chicago Board of Elections officials to create a flyer informing ex-felons of their voting rights. More outreach like that needs to happen, he added.

“If a person left prison this morning and the election was going on today that person can go down to the Board of Election, show them their prison release papers and they will register them to vote right there on the spot. And they can cast a vote right there on the spot,” Lee said.

Lee wants to  create a voting bloc to change public policy by knocking down barriers that that prevent formerly incarcerated from obtaining housing, a college education, jobs and certain professional licenses like certified nursing assistant.

“They call it collateral consequences,” he said. “If I want to get an apartment … that landlord can legally deny me an apartment just because of my conviction …Those are the kinds of things that need to be fought and challenged.” he said.

Last year, a bill sponsored by then-State Rep. Juliana Stratton aimed to make it easier for the formerly incarcerated to reclaim their voting rights. It would have mandated that prisons and jails provide voter registration forms and voter rights pamphlets to inmates upon their release. The bill, however, failed in the veto session though its supporters hope to reintroduce the measure this year. Now Lieutenant Governor, Stratton was appointed by Gov. Pritzker to oversee the Justice, Equity and Opportunity (JEO) Initiative, which will centralize the state’s criminal justice reform efforts.  

Inmates do pay attention to politics, Frison said. He recalled when then-Gov. Pat Quinn was considering reinstating good behavior credits for early release, inmates wrote their families urging them to vote for him. But Frison noted people with records need legislators willing to support policies that incentivize employers to hire them, make expunging and sealing records simpler and provide mental health and housing services.

“Look at all the ex-offenders in the state of Illinois not just the city of Chicago but surrounding towns [like] Rockford, Decatur, Peoria or Aurora — any community in Illinois. If you get half of them to vote and to move together it becomes a voting bloc. You are forced to listen to us,” Frison said.