CHICAGO (AP) – The voting district could have been any of the hundreds across Chicago, except that these mayoral primary voters were all wearing the same beige dresses. And the security at this polling station was not intended to prevent disruptors and campaigners, but the voters inside.
When first-time voter Tykarri Skillon finished poring over a slate of nine candidates, looking for those who shared his priorities on jobs and affordable housing, he marked his ballot, then was escorted to their cells at the Cook County Jail with other voters.
The 25-year-old, who is awaiting trial on gun charges, is part of a group not always mentioned in discussions of disenfranchisement. Persons serving a sentence for criminal offenses lose their right to vote. Detainees awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences retain that right, but face barriers to exercising it in many parts of the United States.
The Cook County Jail, with more than 5,500 inmates and detainees, is one of the largest such facilities in the country. It is one of several jails where suffrage advocates have worked with local election and prison officials to offer the vote to those held there. The list includes prisons in Denver; Harris County, Texas; Los Angeles County; and the District of Columbia.
Expanding voting in prison is one of the latest steps to combine voting rights with changes in criminal justice.
“It feels good to have a voice,” Skillon said after casting his ballot during early voting, before the race went to an April 4 runoff. “We’re going home one day, so we should have a voice in our community.”
Among the candidates he chose were the current mayor, Democrat Lori Lightfoot. Among the problems that hurt her politically was the rise in crime. She ended up finishing third in the election, narrowly missing out on an April 4 runoff between the two top vote-getters, also Democrats.
The most recent survey by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, released last December, found that 451,400 of the 636,300 people held in prisons nationwide have not been convicted and should therefore retain their right to vote.
The right to vote for detainees and prisoners serving misdemeanor sentences was upheld by the US Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in the New York case, O’Brien v. Skinner.
Despite the ruling, voting rights advocates say there is “de facto disenfranchisement” because of eligibility errors and the difficulties detainees and prisoners face in registering or voting.
In the 2020 report, the Prison Policy Initiative focused on three main reasons: registration is difficult because of issues such as ballot deadlines and voter ID laws; detention does not meet the criteria for absentee voting in some jurisdictions; and the outflow of the prison population.
At least one state, Tennessee, introduced legislation this year to address one of the barriers. Being incarcerated as a detainee is not one of the reasons considered valid for granting a vote-by-mail request, said Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, the bill’s sponsor. Yabro, who recently announced he’s running for mayor of Nashville, wants that to change.
“Being a full citizen should be a given,” he said. “Everyone should expect to participate fully in democracy.”
In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, about 75% of the nearly 10,000 people held in jail are pretrial detainees. The sheriff’s department established a polling place there in 2019, working with the county elections office, and has provided voting during the past two election cycles. Prior to that, detainees could only vote by mail.
The move began in 2017 with the Houston Coalition for Justice and an initiative known as Project Orange that helped register thousands of inmates and teach them how to navigate the vote-by-mail process, said Nadia Hakim, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Elections Administration. email.
“Previously, if detainees wanted to vote, they had to do work,” she said. “They had to know their registration status and apply to vote by mail.”
Voting in person has several advantages. The deadline for mail-in ballots is April 25 for this year’s May 6 election. Someone who is reserved after the deadline will not be able to request a postal vote, Hakim said. All detainees, as well as staff members and the public, can vote at the prison polling station as machines are available in secure and public places. In last November’s election, 528 people registered to vote there, including detainees, employees and citizens, she said.
In California, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Roel Garcia said staff members inform pretrial detainees that they can register to vote and hold voter registration disks. Garcia, who oversees the inmate reception center, said the department works with groups such as the League of Women Voters to get information to inmates about candidates and issues on the ballot.
The department and the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk have partnered on a pilot program starting in 2020 that allows voting in two jails. The plan is to expand it to all eight district prisons in 2024.
Secretary Dean Logan said as many as 11,700 people could be eligible at any given time as voting takes place across the county. He said it could serve as a model for other counties.
“I think in-person voting centers are something that people are looking at to see how it will work and if they have the infrastructure, the equipment and the capacity to offer it,” Logan said.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said in an interview that the constant challenges are empowering inmates and finding ways to get them to question their place in the world and inspire them to change. He said that their engagement as the elections approach is an opportunity to achieve this.
“If you’re trying to get inside someone’s head … what better way to do it than to say we want you to be the real decision makers?” he said. “I’m not saying it’s magical fairy dust. … But all (these) things are starting to move the dial.”
A 2019 state law required prisons to take steps to allow unconvicted inmates to vote. Smaller prisons do not have to have polling stations, but they must organize absentee voting.
Dart said the jail is helping organize classes overseen by university staff and other organizations to educate inmates and detainees about everything from the election process to the rationale for judicial elections before they vote. Detainees can also participate in televised debates between candidates.
“Their electoral IQ is off the charts,” Dart said. “The participation level, the turnout — it’s higher than it is out there.”
The sheriff’s office said about 1,500 inmates and detainees – or roughly 27% of the jail population – voted during the first round of Chicago’s mayoral primary.
The Chicago Board of Elections this year brought in several primary voting booths along with a large ballot collection machine and placed them in a part of the jail called the “chapel,” which is normally used for religious services and small concerts.
With only a few guards, half a dozen election staff manned the polling stations at the prison, first helping with registration.
Among the voters was 20-year-old Tony Simmons, who marked his ballot while a dozen others sat in the next room, waiting their turn. For security reasons, only four were brought to the polling station.
Simmons, who is awaiting trial on burglary, robbery and other charges in Cook County, said he has seen campaign ads on prison televisions with serious crime messages. That didn’t bother him, he said, adding that the crime rate should decrease.
Asked which candidates he voted for, he replied: “Those who were more lenient” on the issue of law and crime.
First-time voter Skillon, who is awaiting trial on gun charges, said he believes what many jaded voters outside the walls don’t.
“Your voice matters,” he said. “One vote can definitely make a difference.”
___ Fields reports from Washington.
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