Alex Boutrous of Chicago Votes at a rally in Springfield, Illinois, on March 9 to push for passage of legislation that would allow people convicted of felonies to vote while incarcerated. Photo courtesy Chicago Votes.
When Avalon Betts-Gaston was incarcerated for roughly four years, she left behind two sons — one in high school and one in elementary school.
Betts-Gaston had always been involved in their education, and she said she was angry that she couldn’t vote and choose her local school board representatives.
“I came from a very politically involved family,” said Betts-Gaston, a Naperville, Illinois, resident who is now project manager at the Illinois Alliance for Reentry & Justice. “To have that, which was a big portion of my life, just silenced was very difficult for me.”
“It was really hard to not be available to advocate for my children in the way that I had for their whole lives,” she added.
Illinois, like all states except Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, prohibits people with felony convictions from voting while they are incarcerated. As a result of her conviction, Betts-Gaston spent roughly four years disenfranchised.
But Illinois lawmakers are currently considering a bill, SB 828, which would allow people to vote while serving a felony sentence in county jails or state or federal prisons.
“It would just be amazing,” said Betts-Gaston. “If I had maintained the ability to vote, at least that would have been one way for me to stay in tune with what was happening in my community and be connected with them.”
She said passing the bill would show the country and the world that democracy isn’t just something talked about, but “it’s something we actually act in accordance with, and we do things to improve.”
The same bill failed last year, coming up three votes short in the Democratic-controlled Illinois House, but voting advocates say they’re hopeful the vote will go differently this year.
House sponsor La Shawn K. Ford, a Democrat who represents the state’s 8th District, said he hasn’t given up hope that it could still be passed by the end of the month. If it makes it through the House, the bill will likely pass in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats and already approved it last year. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, has not yet said whether he would sign the bill.
“I’m a firm believer that people in prisons, they too are citizens, and they deserve the right to participate in democracy,” Ford said. “We are now working to try to get the 60 votes to pass it. We may be a little short, but we’re not going to stop. It’s my hope we can pass this bill before the end of this month.”
Voting advocates see a longer timeline for the bill, with the veto session in November being the earliest it’ll go to the floor for a vote.
Advocates gather in Springfield
On Wednesday, roughly 40 voting advocates with groups including Chicago Votes, the League of Women Voters of Chicago and the Illinois Alliance for Reentry & Justice convened in Springfield, Illinois, for a lobby day at the Capitol.
There, they called on lawmakers to take swift action on SB 828.
“That lobby day was very impressive,” Ford said. “They are totally committed to restoring the rights of the citizens to vote in Illinois.”
Frederique Desrosiers, policy associate with Chicago Votes, which led the lobby day, said the advocacy group held a rally on the Capitol steps where members highlighted stories of people affected by disenfranchisement and talked about how voting in prison is also a women’s issue that affects thousands of children.
Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, spoke about how felony disenfranchisement is an environmental issue because people in prisons and jails are subjected to pollution and poor air and water quality but can’t elect lawmakers to do anything about it.
They also held conversations with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the bill, which made them realize it likely won’t get to the House floor this session. She said that while they were able to get committed votes from Democratic lawmakers, many said they don’t want to schedule the vote before the November election.
“We are not thinking that the bill will move this session,” Desrosiers said. “A lot of legislators are fearful of making a controversial vote before the election, and I think a lot of legislators see this as a controversial vote. We don’t.”
While some lawmakers see it as a criminal justice bill, and they don’t want to appear to be lenient on people who have been convicted of a crime, Desrosiers said Chicago Votes sees it differently. “We see it as a voting rights issue, an accessibility issue, and an issue of democracy,” she said.
Developments in other states
Lawmakers in Oregon considered a similar bill in February which would have restored voting rights to roughly 12,000 to 15,000 incarcerated Oregonians, but the effort failed for the second time.
Despite strong support from Democratic party officials, including the secretary of state, Republican leaders were able to kill the attempt, according to the Portland Mercury. Republican lawmakers turned the debate into one about staffing costs and fears about convicted murderers and rapists being empowered by voting.
Elona Wilson, director of Oregon voting rights group Next Up, told the Mercury that she blames the failure on Democrats’ fears of debating the controversial issue.
In recent years, other states have been moving toward expanding the right to vote to people with felony convictions, usually upon their release from prison. Last year, Connecticut, New York, and Washington all passed legislation granting voting rights to people on parole. In 2020, California and New Jersey did the same, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But if Illinois or another state is able to pass legislation ending felony disenfranchisement altogether, it would be the first to do so (Maine and Vermont never had disenfranchisement policies) and would likely set an example and create a playbook for other states, advocates said.
“Illinois is perfectly situated to be the first to make this happen,” Desrosiers said. “Especially right now at a time when other states are restricting voting rights or trying to stop accessibility to the ballot box, this would be awesome for Illinois to be the vanguard.”
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