While picking up a copy of the Chicago Defender that featured a Chicago Reporter story about voting behind bars, the cashier asked, “You can vote even if you’ve been to prison before?”

“Yes,” I quickly replied, “you can vote while on probation and parole too. It doesn’t matter if you have 100 felony convictions, so long as you are not in the custody of IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections], you can vote!”

Her shock was familiar. It was a shock I had seen hundreds of times while registering men and women in Cook County Jail to vote. Most were certain that their past convictions barred them from the polls.


Ability to vote compromised for thousands behind bars

The Reporter story was about a program I run in the Cook County Jail.

In the jail, I surveyed individuals on whether they knew they had a right to vote. Of the 230 people I asked, 81 percent did not know that one could vote after serving prison time. I encountered several individuals who thought registering to vote would be a violation of their parole and would result in jail time. When voting becomes a potentially criminal act to those who have been incarcerated—a group that is disproportionately African-American—it quickly becomes reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

The statistics bear this out. There are approximately 20,000 people in pre-trial detention in this state, all of whom are eligible to vote in Illinois. In any given year, there are approximately 30,000 people who return from prison, all of whom are eligible to vote in Illinois. There are approximately 4 million people who have a past felony conviction, all of whom are eligible to vote in Illinois. Yet, many of these residents are not aware that their record is not a life sentence of disenfranchisement in this state.

Voting is a critical component of societal re-entry for these residents.  Four million people have the power to hold elected officials accountable for ensuring that there are adequate mental health resources, economic opportunity, quality and affordable housing—essentially, a community to re-enter that provides them with a fair shot of living a life of dignity. Four million people have the capacity to impact the upcoming gubernatorial election, but they first must be assured they have a place, a voice, and most importantly, a vote in that election.

It is incumbent on the candidates in our gubernatorial race to demonstrate to these 4 million people that their vote is valuable, by first informing them that they have a vote, one that is equal to that of someone who has never gotten a traffic ticket.

The candidate who champions the voting rights of those who have had contact with the criminal justice system will champion a vote that is disproportionately African-American, a demographic that historically has been, and still is now, disproportionately disenfranchised in this country.

Whether awaiting trial in Cook County Jail, decades out of prison or fresh off the bus from Statesville Prison with a plastic bag of their belongings in their hand, the Illinois Constitution ensures that the dignity of voting is granted to each and every person who is no longer in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections. But false information, outdated voter policies, and lack of outreach incarcerates the constitutional rights of so many in this state.

It is on our elected officials, candidates and policy makers to collaborate in unlocking it.

Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley is the community justice staff attorney at Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

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