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The day Senate Bill 2090 (SB 2090), Voting in Jail, was signed into law, Chicago Votes — an organization committed to educating, training and empowering the next generation of Chicagoans — stood in front of lawmakers and press cheering on the accomplishment of enfranchising our community members in jail.

However, people in jail have always had a right to vote, and the bill ensured a right — that should have been protected in the first place — could actually be exercised. We stood proud, but cautious of the bill being the end of the conversation rather than the beginning. In reality, there were still roughly 39,000 people disenfranchised in Illinois prisons.

We passed Voting in Jail in 2019, knowing that was only the first step towards including incarcerated people in our democracy. In the final moments of the 2021 regular legislative session, we were close to taking the next step by restoring voting rights to people in prison — only to have confusion over the constitution, a document with a legacy of disenfranchisement and criminalization of Black people, stalling the progress.

The fact that Illinois’ constitutional language on voter disenfranchisement is confusing, coupled with the fact that our carceral systems disproportionately incarcerate Black people, is not a coincidence. It is by design. However, despite these truths, restoring voting rights to people in prison post-conviction is constitutional and amends a legacy of racial inequalities in our democracy.

Currently in Illinois, people who are serving sentences under the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) are unable to vote. That is roughly 30,000 people, 55% of whom are Black, although Black people only make up about 15% of the total Illinois population. The disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black people is part of a long legacy in Illinois of passing laws and constitutional amendments to silence Black voters.

To start, the original constitution of Illinois in 1818 explicitly stated only white males are eligible to vote. The second constitution of Illinois, ratified in 1848, added an amendment banning African-American immigration into Illinois. Then, in 1853, Illinois effectively legalizes slavery, allowing the county sheriff to sell the labor of African-Americans found entering the state, with the passage of Black Laws. 

In other words, from 1818 to 1853, we see the explicit disenfranchisement and criminalization of Black people in Illinois. 

Black Laws were not repealed until 1865 — the same year the 13th Amendment was passed, ending chattel slavery, but allowing prison slavery. Five years later in 1870, the third Illinois constitution was ratified, stating, “The general assembly shall pass laws excluding from the right of suffrage persons convicted of infamous crimes.” This is the first mention of felony disenfranchisement in the Illinois constitution.

This leads us to the fourth and current Illinois constitution — ratified in 1970 — which clarifies the felony disenfranchisement language, stating, “A person convicted of a felony, or otherwise under sentence in a correctional institution or jail, shall lose the right to vote, which right shall be restored not later than upon completion of his sentence.” This language, as confusing as it may be, was entirely intentional.

During the 1970 Constitutional Convention, the authors debated the rights of those experiencing incarceration. That debate ranged from the belief people in prison should have their voting rights revoked until the end of their incarceration, not taken away at all or restored at some point during incarceration. 

Throughout all of the debate, one thing remained indisputable — when someone has completed their sentence their right to vote must be restored. In the end, they decided to go with the language that the right to vote will be restored “not later than completion of his sentence.” Otherwise put — and ignoring the sexist language — they left it up to legislators to decide exactly what point during incarceration people would have the right restored.

Now the legislative branch gets to decide.

While the constitutional language is confusing, the solution is not. The American legal system doesn’t work. Plain and simple. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, disproportionately locking up Black and brown people. This, in addition to extremely high rates of recidivism, massive amounts of harm caused to communities and Illinois ranking third highest in wrongful convictions. A bunch of people — Black and brown people — are having their right to vote taken away by a system that is, at the very least, flawed, but more accurately, fallacious.

Now is the time to combat the legacy of disenfranchisement in Illinois.

While a number of states are proactively passing laws to disenfranchise people, Illinois has the opportunity to continue on a trend of voter enfranchisement. If lawmakers and Illinois residents take seriously the responsibility to undo the harm of the legal system, and if we truly believe Black lives matter, we will support restoring voting rights to our primarily Black population prison population.

Restoring voting rights to community members in prison has always been the goal. We knew that in 2019 when signing SB 2090 into law. So did House Speaker Chris Welch. He carried SB 2090 in the House back in 2019 when he was still a state representative. He verbally committed his support for voting in prison at the bill signing and has continued to be an ally and advocate for restoring the right to vote to people who are currently incarcerated in prisons.

With the support of allies and leaders in the general assembly, we successfully secured a commitment of over 60 votes in the House so that Representative Lashawn Ford, the bill’s sponsor, could put SB 828 to a vote and move it forward. Unfortunately, powerful “progressive” House Democrats got cold feet in committee and only voted “yes” if the bill didn’t get a vote on the floor, while another self-proclaimed “progressive Democrat” voted “no” outright, even after committing his support to both advocates and lawmakers.

Even still, SB 828 made it out of committee and is still very much alive — it sits on third reading on the House Floor. It only needs a simple majority vote of “yes” to be moved back to the Senate during veto session, where 30 senators will need to confer with the bill language and send it to Governor Pritzker. If Governor Pritzker signs this bill into law, people in prison will be able to participate in the 2022 midterm elections.

Our work now is to put the concerns of the democratic legislators to rest and hold them accountable to their claims of being the pro-voting rights party. By holding majority seats in both the House of Representatives and the State Senate, as well as the Governor’s mansion, Illinois Democrats are all that stands between roughly 30,000 Illinoisans and their right to vote.

As young Black organizers, we recognize that all movements for liberation are met with opposition from those who benefit from the status quo. While we celebrate Illinois' strides towards making the ballot more accessible, the work is far from complete. We cannot boast of democracy when a key constituency is locked out of the most fundamental exercise of democracy.