This Election Day, whether it be a final act, or mere intermission to the political theater that has governed the country the last four years, has garnered the highest stakes of any November 3rd in modern American history.
Founded 10 years ago, the organization works to debunk the myths surrounding voting rights for incarcerated folks, which they say is essential to a working democracy.
This October, they brought polling places directly to eligible voters detained in Cook County Jail, thanks to the Voting In Jail bill, recently passed into Illinois law.
“We just want to make sure all the misconceptions that folks lose the right to vote forever because they have a felony on their record are dismantled before people even leave the prison,” organizing manager Alexandria Boutros said. “We know this myth is so widespread throughout prisons, and thus throughout communities. It’s detrimental because elected officials are passing laws and doing work all the time around our prisons and jails, and it should include people who are directly affected.”
Incarcerated folks' eligibility to vote varies across state lines. In Illinois, citizens reserve the right to vote while they await trial, and those convicted of a felony have their voting rights reinstated at the end of their prison sentence. Still, ACLU Illinois reports, many Illinoisans who have experienced incarceration do not know their rights.
The Voting In Jail bill was created to bridge this gap. The legislation, which took effect January 1, mandates that counties with over three million eligible voters place polling stations inside of county jails.
Chicago Votes co-deputy director Jen Dean said the first weekend of voting at Cook County Jail was "historic."
"We have been running a vote by mail absentee program in Cook County since 2017, but this was the first year when the legislative took effect, allowing us to have polling machines in the jail. Voter turnout doubled," Dean explained. "That just shows the amount of human error that occurs when ballots are handled by multiple people, especially those who are not election authorities. Having folks cast their ballot, counted on the spot, is vital for this work."
Still, incarcerated folks can only vote on the issues on which they are informed. Chicago Votes helped pass the Re-entry Civics Education Act last year, requiring every person leaving an Illinois prison to receive three 90-minute civics classes. Boutros spearheads the curriculum.
She believes engaging the incarcerated population in civic duties could shift the political landscape.
“Elected officials create their policies and priorities around the folks who elect them into office. That's why the priorities of young people and folks that don't vote or can't vote, are often left out,” Boutros explained. “If folks that are in prison have this right to vote, then we would see elected officials’ priorities shift towards folks who are voting.”
Boutros conceded that the fight for political representation is a nuanced battle, only won once voting is made easy and accessible to disenfranchised populations.
“Gaining that right to vote is the biggest step, but then we need to institute structure, like we did with our Voting In Jail bill, to ensure that there is access to voting, along with support, and political and public education,” the Organizing Manager asserted. “All these things are necessary to start seeing a shift in our elected officials’ priorities.”
Prison gerrymandering, or the policy of including the prison address where incarcerated people are held has also come up on the Chicago Votes agenda. The practice, according to the voter advocacy’s platform, inflates the political influence and amount of resources allocated for prison towns, which are largely rural and white, while draining resources from the communities incarcerated folks are forced to leave behind.
The organization likens prison based gerrymandering to the Three-Fifths compromise, which counted ⅗ of slave populations when drawing district lines, ultimately awarding slave-holding states electoral power for their enslaved population.
Still, the equivalence of the enslavement period with the policies surrounding modern incarceration stretch beyond district lines. Chicago Votes also sponsored the End Prison Labor Act, denouncing the low-wage labor and asserting that it’s offered a cover for slavery to creep back into modern society, thinly veiled and largely uncontested.
The senate bill calls for the Illinois minimum wage to be extended to the state’s prison population, who currently work for $0.09 to $2.12 a day, according to the bill. While this labor is voluntary, the bill reminds legislators that incarcerated people are still financially responsible for their meals and supplies, leaving some folks working for two weeks for basic necessities like tampons.
Chicago Votes also supports the Judicial Quality Act, which calls for judges to undergo quarterly training in domestic violence, the impact of trauma on youth brain development, racial bias in sentencing and cultural competency.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to demand reform, Dean says it’s essential that the world recognizes the immense power held by judges.
“The impact judges have is huge,” she explained. “Part of our work at Chicago Votes is working in a class at Stateville Prison, which is a maximum security prison. Most of the guys in our class are serving life sentences. Several of them were sentenced very young, like 17,18, 19. We forget how powerful judges are in the American legal system.”
The organization remains directly engaged in the call to reform the system in the meantime. In addition to creating judicial voter guides outlining the judges that are unqualified, Dean says the organization takes it a step further with their Court Watching program.
According to their website, Chicago Votes partners with Chicago Appleseed to send volunteers into Cook County courtrooms to observe proceedings in order to complete their Judicial Accountability from.
“We need to know what behaviors from judges need to be changed. What are model judges doing that other judges need to implement,” Dean posited.
The Judicial Quality Act would also require judges to hear live testimony from people facing sentences of 20 years or more.
“We talk a lot about how judges are quick to sentence people, but then they never follow up and look that person in the eyes, 50 years later,” Dean said. “The goal is to show judges that when you sentence a kid to life in prison at 17, you are taking away his life and this is what that means. Because it’s one thing to sit in a courtroom, but it’s another thing to see a human being sitting in a in a cage, that is torture. As a country we need to talk about the fact that state sanctioned violence is very real, and it’s just as violent as the violence we see in our communities.”
The organization works to bridge the gap between young voters of color and advocacy for the issues that matter to them. With Give A Sh*t Chicago, the group has created a network of artists, and creatives, giving them a platform to bring light to the issues that matter to them, without the “transactional” nature of the typical “Go vote!” messaging that they say doesn’t mobilize young voters.
“Our Give A Sh*t program hits at the fact that one of the biggest obstacles for young voters of color is the huge disconnect between civic engagement and community,” Boutros explained. “We can't only talk about voting every 4 years and we can't talk about voting as the only connection to democracy. We have to talk about all aspects, which include holding our elected officials accountable, court watching to see how these judges who we elect to office actually treat people in their courtrooms.”
Boutros said the program leverages creative expression as a method of catharsis and identity for young people — and the key to unlocking the civic issues that impact their lives.
“Our Give A Sh*t program works to meet young people where they’re at,” she said. “We understand that the most prevalent ways for people to deal with trauma is through art and creativity, and helps them find self identity. That’s how you should build your ballot and decide what issues you care about. So our Give A Sh*t program fosters artists and issues that young people really care about in Chicago.”
Chicago Votes breaks down the city’s budget for young voters as they look towards the future. The organization calls for the reallocation of the $1.7B police budget.
“We need affordable housing,” Boutros said. “There are a lot of luxury developers that are coming in and the affordable housing that they’re required to have in their apartments is not affordable. We need mental health clinics. People need therapy. Chicago could do so much to update our transit authority to make it so accessible, if we diverted some of that $1.7B. It’s just ridiculous.”
While Republican talking points warn that climate action would take away American jobs, Boutros envisions an electric city, enlivened by employment and innovation — and evolved beyond conventional policing.
“How many jobs could we create if we distributed that police budget? We could transition to fully renewable energy," she asserted. "We would create so many jobs where folks from the police department could plug in, learn a great skill, and not be in an extremely toxic environment to make a living.”
In Dean’s view, America exists as a nation of democratic ideals, rather than one that prioritizes equality in practice. She says the future lies with the youth.
“We have to think through why it is that generations of families have been in the White House, the fact that we have only had one Black president. That is not democracy,” she said. “We have this idea of what democracy is supposed to be, but we have yet to achieve it. It’s really important that we are having our come to Jesus moment that this is not a democracy, we have a lot of work to do and a lot of trauma to unpack.”
Beyond this election, Dean says, the country will have a lot of work to do in reversing the legislative harm inflicted by the Trump administration. Behind the scenes, Chicago Votes will be working to ensure young voters continue to give a sh*t.