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Cook County Jail Detainees Had A Higher Voter Turnout In The Primary Than The City As A Whole

About 20 percent of voters turned out citywide compared to 25 percent of detainees at Cook County Jail. Recent legislation made the jail a polling place with same-day registration, boosting turnout there.

Inside a unit at the Cook County Jail.
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LITTLE VILLAGE — People incarcerated at Cook County Jail turned out to vote in the June primary election at rates higher than the city as a whole, the result of recent efforts to improve access to same-day registration and detailed election information for detainees, voting rights organizers said.

Chicago Board of Elections data shows dismal voter turnout for the June 28 primary, with just 20 percent of all registered voters casting a ballot citywide, less than the 29 percent of primary voters who turned out in 2018 and 2020. By comparison, about 25 percent of the detainees at Cook County Jail voted, with 1,384 votes cast from the jail out of an average June jail population of 5,560, according to the the Cook County Sheriff’s Department and the Chicago Board of Elections.

In the 24th Ward where the jail is located, just 15 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, lower than both the city as a whole and the jail population.

The overwhelming majority of people in jail are presumed innocent since they have not yet had their day in court, so it is paramount they still have access to the polls, said Alex Boutros, a community organizer for Chicago Votes, a voting advocacy group.

Many of the roles on the ballot, like the Cook County Sheriff and appellate and circuit judges, wield tremendous power over the justice system. That makes it essential for people accused of a crime who are directly involved in the courts or the jail to have access to the polls, Boutros said.

“If an elected official does not have to rely on the vote of people who are incarcerated, then they will not prioritize those people’s needs,” Boutros said.

Chicago Votes has several programs focused on informing incarcerated people about their voting rights and distributing election guides that educate people on each candidate’s platform and the powers and duties of each elected position.

Injustice Watch, a nonprofit newsroom focused on the criminal justice system, also worked to distribute their Check Your Judges guide focused on the judicial primaries to 3,000 detainees.

“These are offices that most directly impact people in jail,” Boutros said. “The right to vote is a way for people to hold elected officials accountable for what they promise.”

About half of Cook County Jail detainees who voted in the primary took advantage of same-day registration or grace period voting. Voting this way was not allowed until March 2020 primary election, when a new law took effect that designated Cook County Jail as the first jail-based polling place nationwide.

Prior to that election, people detained at the jail had to register to vote by mail far in advance of the election, Boutros said.

“We have to address those barriers and those possible reasons why people aren’t voting,” Boutros said. “We can’t just say, ‘Go vote.’ We have to create structures for people to have access to the polls.”

Far fewer detainees at the Cook County Jail voted in prior elections when same-day registration was not available and the jail was not a polling place. Only 394 detainees cast ballots from the jail in the 2018 primary election, even though the jail held over 6,000 detainees at that time, according to Chicago Votes data.

Despite misconceptions, people in Illinois can vote even if they have a criminal record.

RELATED: Ex-Felons Are Working To Get Out The Vote Among Former Illinois Inmates — And They’re Paying Extra Attention To Judges

People serving time for a misdemeanor or felony conviction cannot vote until they are released from prison, but people in pre-trial detention; or released on parole, probation or electronic monitoring can cast ballots.

Chicago Votes is among the organization pushing legislation to restore voting rights for those serving a sentence since mass incarceration and the loss of voting rights disproportionately impacts Black people, Boutros said. State Rep. La Shawn Ford has backed that effort.

“When we take the right to vote from somebody, it’s very intentional and it has a large racially disproportionate impact on our communities,” Boutros said.

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