By: Andrew Heiser
Brian Harrington spent thirteen years in prison after being charged with murder at the age of sixteen. During that time, he was able to build skills he hoped to use outside of prison, work on self-improvement, and raise awareness about the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. There was, however, one thing he could not do: vote.
In Illinois, as in almost every state, incarcerated felons lose their right to vote while they are incarcerated (though unlike some states, in Illinois the right to vote is restored immediately upon release). Only two states, Maine and Vermont, and the District of Columbia currently allow all people in prison to vote during their incarceration. Alabama, Alaska, and Mississippi also allow some prisoners to vote if they were not convicted of certain crimes—though which crimes specifically cause those with felony convictions to lose the right to vote can seem arbitrary, and many are not made aware of the distinction.
Mr. Harrington was released from prison last April, and currently leads policy work at Chicago Votes, a non-profit seeking to increase voter engagement and participation in democracy. The group is currently working with two state legislators, Democrats Sen. Mike Simmons and Rep. LeShawn Ford, on legislation that would restore voting rights to people in prisons. The proposed bill would restore the voting rights of a person convicted of a felony either fourteen days after their conviction, or five days before the first election after their confinement.
Rep. Ford argues that giving the imprisoned the right to vote will help them reform by giving them a stronger sense of civic duty and involvement with their community. Other proponents of allowing people in prisons to vote have made a similar argument. They note that having strong ties to a community, such as political engagement through voting, makes re-entry into society after prison more likely to succeed. Advocates dismiss the argument that a felony conviction (and subsequent imprisonment) is proof of a personal lack of fitness to vote, arguing that such a test creates a slippery slope that arbitrarily narrows the franchise. Another proponent of voting rights for the imprisoned points out that prisoners do not lose all their rights, such as free speech and freedom of worship, due to imprisonment. Taking away the equally fundamental right to vote from the imprisoned is thus to deny the truth that they remain citizens, whatever their crimes.
The push to restore the voting rights of the incarcerated comes in the midst of a broader movement in Illinois to expand voter access. In February of this year, Governor Pritzker signed a law requiring people in state prisons to be considered residents of their home addresses for legislative redistricting starting in 2030. The law is meant to end “prison gerrymandering,” the practice by which the incarcerated are counted as residents of the place in which they are imprisoned during redistricting. This increases the electoral power of rural, predominately white districts through the presence of disproportionately Black and Latine prisoners who are unable to vote. In Illinois, 90% of prisoners are counted as residents of downstate counties, despite about half coming from Chicago. Another bill passed in June established permanent vote by mail registries, allowed people awaiting trial in jail to vote, and required counties to establish at least one universal voting center, among other measures meant to make voting more accessible. Both the governor and legislators have specifically contrasted the legislation, which they claimed was meant to strengthen and expand democracy, to legislation in other states, such as Texas, which has made voting more difficult.
The passage of the bill to restore voting rights to people in prison, however, is far from assured. The governor has not said whether he will sign the bill even if it does pass. The bill faces opposition from some legislators and from the Illinois State Board of Elections. Both question whether the new law is legal under Illinois’s state constitution. They base their argument on Article III, Section 2 of the constitution, which states that a person with a felony conviction will have their right to vote restored “no later than upon completion of [their] sentence.” Opponents of the bill interpret this as clearly requiring that people in prison lose their right to vote; its proponents, on the other hand, view it as leaving open the possibility of prisoners’ right to vote being restored during their incarceration. The Board of Elections has suggested that the constitution be changed before legislation allowing the incarcerated to vote be considered. Whatever happens, the right of Illinoisans behind bars to vote remains uncertain for now.