Julie Shelton, center, with other volunteers at Cook County Jail.
Many Cook County Jail detainees have no idea they can vote, but a number of local organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Chicago, are working to change that. Julie Shelton coordinates the League’s participation in voter registration drives at the jail. Collaborating with Chicago Votes, jail administrators, and the Chicago Board of Elections (CBOE), League members have helped register almost 3,000 detainees over the last year.
Julie Shelton works with other volunteers at Cook County Jail. “The jail is not a warm or friendly place, but the detainees are always very nice and polite to us. Interacting with the individuals there, it’s pretty clear many of them have been underserved in terms of education and opportunity,” she states. “The people we register are awaiting trial and are innocent until proven guilty. They have every right to vote, and voting is the one of the best ways to participate in our democracy and be a part of the community. “
Julie and other members of LWV Chicago worked with Executive Director, Lance Gough at the CBOE to organize the registration drives as well as actual voting inside the jail. Because pretrial detainees come from different precincts, in-jail voting requires almost 200 different ballots.
Recently, volunteers spent three days at the jail sorting 5,500 envelopes from the BOE to be distributed to each inmate. The envelopes, which contained applications to register to vote and for Vote By Mail ballots, were sorted in the jail’s mailroom by division and tier. Detainees who filled out and returned their applications had the opportunity to cast their ballot in a private voting booth set up at the jail on October 20 and on October 27. League members and others were present both days to facilitate the voting.
Sarah Lincoln, a retired physician and League member, was one of the early volunteers for the jail voter registration project. She talks about the complexity and logistics of an effort where thousands of inmates are spread out in multiple buildings in high-and low-security areas. “By and large, the inmates are appreciative,” she says. “They express amazement that we’re spending our free time doing this work.”
Illinois law allows individuals who have been charged, but not convicted of a crime, the right to vote, but many inmates are not registered or have changed their address. Most of the 20,000 detainees in jails across the state aren’t provided with voter information and are told or believe incorrectly that they can’t vote. Out of 102 counties, only 8, including Cook County, currently facilitate voting.
Illinois House Bill 4469, which had the support of the Illinois, Chicago and Cook County Leagues as well as nearly two dozen other sponsors, would require the Illinois Department of Corrections and county jails to work with election officials to ensure pretrial detainees can vote. The bill also required prisons to provide a “know your rights guide” and registration information to individuals as they are released from serving their time. Despite passing both the state House and Senate, Governor Rauner vetoed “know your rights” provision of the bill on Aug. 17.
League members who have volunteered at the jail are hopeful the rest of the bill will be implemented before the 2020 election.
League members who want more information about volunteering with the jail project should contact Julie. Chicago League members who are current participants in the program are Julie Shelton, Catherine Mardikes, Jane Ruby, Celia Jill Althage, Sarah Lincoln, Bill Young, Carol Horton, Jean Farley Brown, Mary C. Galligan, Susan Sosin, Linda Diamond Shapiro, and Jill Adams Willis.
— By Chris Ruys