CHICAGO — As Election Day looms, and voting advocates urge people to get to the polls, there’s one group hard at work to remind people like them that they, too, can cast a ballot: the formerly incarcerated.
Illinois is one of 16 states where people convicted of a felony automatically regain the right to vote upon release. Once someone is out of custody, even if they are on parole or probation, they can re-register to vote, according to Illinois Legal Aid Online.
But formerly incarcerated people say most people returning from prison assume they’ve lost their voting rights and rarely know they can participate in elections.
Now released from custody, and aware of their rights, some formerly incarcerated people say they are embracing their ability to vote in this year’s election. For some, it will be their first time casting a ballot.
And they want to make sure other former felons take advantage of the opportunity. With judges and county prosecutors on the ballot, formerly incarcerated people said they have personal stakes in which officials are elected to operate their criminal justice system.
“I’m a Black man who did some time. But I still have a voice,” said Darren Cox, who served more than three decades in prison. “We’ve been fighting all our lives. We got to try to make this as level a playing field as possible. So we definitely got to get out there and fight for one another to vote.”
Tuesday’s election would be Renaldo Hudson’s second time voting.
Hudson spent 37 years in prison before being granted clemency by Governor JB Pritzker and released in September. He was originally sentenced to death for a 1983 murder when he was 19.
“I’d say 97 percent of the people that are in prison think that they don’t have a right to vote anymore because they have a conviction,” Hudson estimated. “It’s a small minority that know they have the right to vote.”
His only time voting was while he was in jail awaiting trial, as part of an effort by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition to extend voting access to jails. Hudson supported Harold Washington in his successful campaign to become Chicago’s first Black mayor.
He also voted for Charles Freeman to become the first Black justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, whom he backed as a progressive.
Hudson was struck by how important his vote was when an appeal that could have lessened his sentence and get him off death row ended up in the Illinois Supreme Court before Justice Freeman. Freeman ruled against him, effectively upholding Hudson’s death sentence.
“For me, voting is an act of survival, attempting to save my life,” Hudson said.
Since his release, he has joined the Illinois Prison Project as a criminal justice reform advocate. He is urging formerly incarcerated people to vote so they can have a say in choosing the prosecutor who brings charges against people accused of crimes.
Some prosecutors are more likely to take into account the social circumstances like poverty and trauma that lead up to incidents of crime, Hudson said, which is reflected in their strategies for enforcing the law. He is working to reform the justice system by helping elect prosecutors who will “pay attention to all the things that may have led up to you becoming that person.”
“Yes, you should be held accountable for what you did. But they also should be working to figure out what went wrong. Where did I break?” Hudson said.
Cox, who served 31 years for murder and sexual assault, wasn’t alone in assuming he could no longer vote. Nearly everybody he knew in prison who has been released also thought the same, he said. Many states, indeed, do ban felons from voting or create barriers that make it difficult to reinstate voting rights.
Rather for Cox, it was the conditions of incarceration that led him to believe there was no place in society that would value his voice.
“When you get incarcerated, you lose all your rights and privileges. That’s how they make you feel. That’s how they make you think,” he said.
Before his conviction, Cox took advantage of every opportunity to vote.
For this election, Cox paid special attention to the list of judges on the ballot, since they determine the sentences for people convicted of crimes. Turning in his early ballot made him feel like he was back with his family again talking about the issues that matter, he said.
“It’s like a family tradition,” he said. “Every time it’s time to vote, we used to all get together and talk about what’s going on, who we’re voting for and why we’re voting. What we want to change.”
Thomas Sirtoff, 44, has been wrapped up in the criminal justice system since he was 18. This will be his first time voting in a general election.
The misconception that all prisoners have permanently relinquished their right to vote is “pretty much the going consensus” among people who are incarcerated and recently released, Sirtoff said. This is especially true in federal prisons, where inmates come from different states that have different voting rights.
“To be able to vote was pretty much not even a thought in my mind. I never thought that I would be part of the democratic process of even getting a voice,” he said.
Sirtoff is paying close attention to each judge’s record on drug cases this election. Even though cannabis has become legal, he has seen many people receive harsh sentences for drug crimes.
“They’re still doing very extended sentences for low-level drug offenders,” he said.
Restrictions on voting rights for formerly incarcerated people are “just another way for them to do voter suppression,” Sirtoff said.
“You’ve done your time,” he said, “and you deserve a second chance. You deserve to be in the workforce and be a contributing member of society that should also have a voice in who runs the government.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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