POLITICS
08/20/2018 06:23 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2018

Illinois Governor Blocks Bill To Tell People With Criminal Histories About Their Voting Rights

The veto requires "an honest conversation about why you wouldn’t want to empower people to participate in the political process," an advocate said.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) blocked legislation on Friday that would have required corrections officials throughout the state to help people detained in jails and prisons understand whether they can vote.

The bill would have required election and corrections officials to offer ballots to people being detained in jail prior to their trials who want to vote. It would have also required corrections officials to provide voter registration forms to people being released from jail and information about voting rights to those leaving prison.

The bill was meant to reduce the confusion about voting rights that contributes to voter disenfranchisement. People detained in jails often have no idea they are eligible to vote, let alone how to request a ballot to do so. The policies governing whether felons can vote when they are released from prison vary widely from state to state. Offenders, as well as parole officers and other corrections officials, can easily be confused about who has the right to vote.

The bill would have especially benefited members of minority groups that tend to be disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, according to Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, an attorney at the Sargent Shriver Center on National Poverty Law who helped write the legislation. She estimated that 4 million people in Illinois with an arrest record could have been affected by the legislation.

“Just imagine if all those 4 million people had accurate information on whether they had the right to vote or not in this state and actually exercised that right to vote,” Mbekeani-Wiley told HuffPost. “I mean, who really benefits from having a demographic that is predominantly black and Latino not being informed of their right to vote in this state? I think it requires us to have an honest conversation about why you wouldn’t want to empower people to participate in the political process. Is it a detriment to your party? Is this a partisan decision?”

I mean, who really benefits from having a demographic that is predominantly black and Latino not being informed of their right to vote in this state? Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, Sargent Shriver Center on National Poverty Law

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Sargent Shriver Center on National Poverty Law say that just eight of Illinois’ 102 counties have programs in jails to help people vote. In the 2016 and 2018 primary elections, turnout among people detained in jail was just 13 percent, according to a Mother Jones analysis. Taking away Cook County ― where a nonprofit and volunteers are leading a robust effort to register people in jail to vote ― that turnout dropped to just four percent, the analysis showed. The Illinois Board of Elections doesn’t even have data for most counties about the number of people incarcerated who requested a ballot during the 2016 election, according to a document the board provided to HuffPost.

In his veto, Rauner didn’t object to helping people get access to ballots during pretrial detention, but specifically took issue with the requirement that officials provide voter registration forms to people leaving jail and voting rights information to those leaving prison. He said he’d support the bill if lawmakers eliminated those elements of it.

Every citizen eligible to vote should be able to exercise that right, and I fully support this expansion of access to the democratic process,” Rauner said in a statement with his veto. “This legislation also mandates that the Department of Corrections, as well as county jails across the state, take part in voter registration and education efforts that exceed the legitimate role of law enforcement, corrections and probation personnel.” 

The bill passed the Illinois House of Representatives 64-37 and Senate 38-17. Mbekeani-Wiley said a coalition of groups planned to press lawmakers to override Rauner’s veto this fall. (They will need the support of three-fifths of lawmakers in both the Illinois House and Senate to do so.)

She also pushed back on Rauner’s suggestion that the bill was outside the scope of law enforcement and said supporters had made a number of concessions to ease any burden on officials, including by eliminating a provision that would have penalized Illinois Department of Correction employees for failing to adhere to the law. The ACLU had agreed to provide voting rights materials to minimize the cost to the state.

Mbekeani-Wiley said it made sense for corrections officials to provide voting information because they interacted with people in the criminal justice system the most.

“All they simply have to do is put it in the stacks of paper that people already receive when they leave correctional facilities. We’re just adding in additional documents at no cost to the state,” she said.

Rauner’s veto comes as the governor is locked in a tough re-election battle against Democrat J.B. Pritzker. The legislation, introduced by Pritzker’s running mate, state Rep. Juliana Stratton, wouldn’t have taken effect until Jan. 1, 2020.

Khadine Bennett, the director of advocacy and intergovernmental affairs at the ACLU of Illinois, said she had told the governor’s staff that signing the bill would be an “easy win” for the governor.

“When we’ve been talking to people recently about this bill, they were excited about this governor actually doing something that would help them in such a monumental way,” she said. “There’s no big group who’s opposed, you’re not alienating any community. This is information where it’s not a partisan issue.”

This article has been updated to reflect that the 4 million estimate provided by the Sargent Shriver Center is of Illinois residents with an arrest record, not with “felony convictions” as initially reported.

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