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Cook County Jail Detainees Are Voting, But Getting Informed On The Candidates Can Be Tough

Turnout at the jail was better than citywide turnout for the June 2022 primary — but a lack of internet access has been a challenge for those wanting to know more about the candidates.

Detainees at Cook County Jail register to vote.
Davon Clark, City Bureau
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NORTH LAWNDALE — People detained at Cook County Jail can vote — but it’s difficult to get them information they need about who they’re voting for, volunteers said.

Chicagoans voted Feb. 28 — and will vote again in the April 4 runoff — to determine the city’s next mayor and each ward’s alderperson, among other races. Turnout was low citywide — but an “impressive” 927 ballots were cast at the jail in just four days of early voting for the Feb. 28 election, said elections board spokesman Max Bever.

While detained people can cast a ballot, it’s not easy for them to look up the candidates they’re being asked to vote for.

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

Volunteers go to the jail to register detained people to vote and provide them with printed information about the election and races. But people at the jail can’t use the internet, which means they’re limited when trying to read up on candidates.

Heena Mohammed, a University of Chicago graduate student who volunteers registering detained people to vote, said she and other volunteers can bring in printed materials that provide factual, non-partisan information to incarcerated people.

Chicago Votes — a voting advocacy group — provides printed voting guides to people detained at the jail. The guide for the Feb. 28 election included information about the nine mayoral candidates — but just that brought the guide to 30 pages, which means there wasn’t space to include information about the aldermanic candidates, members said. More than 170 Chicagoans ran for an aldermanic position.

Credit: Heena Mohammed/ACLU
This flyer is given to people detained at Cook County Jail so they have information about voting.
Credit: Heena Mohammed/ACLU
This flyer is given to people detained at Cook County Jail so they have information about voting.

Detained people can’t use the internet because it poses a security risk, but they can get information from printed and other nonpartisan sources, like the TV, said Matt Walberg, a Cook County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson.

“In the lead-up to both the recent Chicago municipal election and the upcoming April 4 election, thousands of non-partisan voting guides from multiple organizations have been distributed to individuals in custody in every housing unit of the jail,” Walberg said in a statement.

Detained people had access to 6,000 copies of Chicago Votes’ guide, as well as WTTW’s voter guide and broadcasted candidate forums from ABC7 and WGN, Walberg said.

Injustice Watch has worked to inform detained voters, as well. After their judicial election guide was mistakenly rejected by jail officials in 2020, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office agreed to distribute the guide directly to detainees.

Stevie Valles, co-executive director of Chicago Votes, said the jail has been helpful in assisting the group and organizing voter outreach, but voting advocates said the limits create obstacles.

“Oftentimes, [detained people] don’t have enough information about the candidates for mayor and wards they live in,” Valles said. “We do a lot of civic talks to help them figure out their ward and identify policies. We even suggest reaching out to their loved ones to get that information for them.”

Another wrinkle: Few, if any, political candidates visit the jail to talk to detained people about their platforms.

Valles said detained people would like to have an open forum in the jail for mayoral candidates to discuss their positions.

Detained people also face barriers to actually casting a ballot: During the Feb. 28 election, there were only four days they could vote in person — Feb. 11-12 and Feb. 18-19 — while other Chicago residents had about a month where they could early vote in person.

Even that is a recent change; until 2020, people detained at the jail could only vote if they got an absentee ballot. Officials think Cook County was the first jail-based polling location in the country, the Tribune reported.

Since the change to allow in-person voting at the jail, turnout has been high — it was even higher than the citywide turnout in June’s statewide primary election. Turnout was 20 percent citywide and 25 percent at the jail.

Detained people can also vote by mail — though they can’t use the internet to sign up to vote by mail.

Under state law, people in Cook County Jail are allowed to vote. Those serving time in prison for a misdemeanor or felony conviction cannot vote, but people in pre-trial detention, on parole or probation can vote. The right to vote is restored immediately after a sentence is served.

When voting, people incarcerated at the jail cast a ballot for the offices based on where they’re registered to vote. Many people detained at the jail also take advantage of same-day registration to sign up to vote; during the Feb. 28 election, 629 people registered to vote in just three days: Feb. 11, 18 and 19, Bever said.

Valles said it is important for people to know they still have the right to vote if they’re in jail — and them voting is key since mass incarceration and the loss of voting rights disproportionately affects African Americans.

“Eighty percent of the jail is Black, and here they feel as if their political voice has been taken away,” Valles said. “We’re strengthening democracy by doing this. People in prison are the most explicitly disenfranchised groups in the country.”

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