A law that took effect Jan. 1 will grant easier voting access to residents detained at the McHenry County Jail.
The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office and Clerk’s Office began making preparations for inmate voting shortly after Gov. JB Pritzker signed Senate Bill 2090 in August. The law expands detainees’ voting rights and requires prisons to issue educational resources to inmates upon their release.
“Very early on, we met with some officials from the jail as well as the sheriff to get them some vote-by-mail and register-to-vote documents,” McHenry County Chief Deputy Clerk Debra Nieto said.
In 2019, only eight Illinois counties – Champaign, Coles, Cook, DuPage, Sangamon, Lake, Piatt and Tazewell – had programs in place to ensure that pretrial inmates could vote during elections, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Because county jails primarily house pretrial inmates who will be released within weeks or months of their arrival, it’s important to prepare them for successful reentry, Lake County Sheriff John Idleburg said.
“I believe everyone in society who wishes to exercise their right to vote should be afforded the opportunity, including inmates,” Idleburg said. “This is why I worked with the Lake County Clerk’s Office – to continue allowing inmate voting for those eligible, prior to any changes in the law.”
Other counties weren’t necessarily denying voters a ballot while they were in jail, however. In previous years, voters in the McHenry County Jail were provided absentee ballots, which were then sent to election officials to be tallied with the rest of the county’s mail-in ballots, Nieto said.
Under the new law, the process will be even more streamlined. Heading into the upcoming primary election, the jail will provide voter registration application information to each inmate, including those who were arrested and later discharged, McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy Sandra Rogers said.
Jail staff also posted informational signs throughout the building summarizing inmates’ voting rights.
“That was made in a poster and hung in the jail on each floor,” Nieto said.
In order to vote, inmates must be residents of McHenry County and provide either their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Although it’s not required, the clerk’s office will work with the jail to establish a quasi-polling location for pretrial inmates to fill out or turn in their ballots.
After confirming each voter’s registration and pretrial status, election officials will cast the ballots, Nieto said.
S.B. 2090 passed the Illinois House on May 28 with a 69-45 vote. State Reps. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock; David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills; and Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, each voted against the bill.
Rather than focusing on rights already afforded to Illinois residents, McSweeney said he thinks the state’s money and resources should be used to secure election technology and “protect the integrity of the ballot.”
“They have the rights,” McSweeney said. “They don’t need to expand beyond what’s being done right now.”
About 20,000 people are detained in county jails throughout Illinois as they await trial, according to the ACLU. Advocates for the bill have said that without access to voting or proper education about their rights, specific demographics could be underrepresented on election day.
“So many people who are in jail are in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail,” said Khadine Bennett, ACLU Illinois advocacy and intergovernmental affairs director. “They’re not sitting in jail because they’re a threat to society, it’s because they’re too poor to bail themselves out.”
In Illinois, a person in prison for a felony conviction cannot vote, but those rights automatically are restored once they’re released. Although pretrial detainees have the right to vote in elections, without a formal process in place, detained voters often don’t know their rights or don’t have the means to cast a ballot, Bennett said.
“It was more along the lines of not just allowing them to exercise the right, but also part of the law requires that when people leave prison or jail, they learn about those rights,” Bennett said.
The new law requires the Illinois Department of Corrections and each county jail to provide voter registration applications to each eligible resident released from its custody. Anyone released from an Illinois prison also will be provided detailed information about their voting rights.
“I think a lot of jails didn’t know that that’s something that was allowable, and I think that’s why it’s really important to us that now it’s the law,” Bennett said.