County Jails Assist Voting Under New Law

Oct 12, 2020

Pre-trial defendants who remain in custody are still allowed to vote in the upcoming election, and 2020 is the first year Illinois state law mandates having a vote-by-mail option available.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1, is meant to ensure that county sheriffs and local election officials have a process in place for people awaiting trial to vote from jail—whether by mail or in-person. It also directs county jails and Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) facilities to provide people who have not been convicted with information about their voting rights.

However, Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell notes assisting detainees in the election process is nothing new to him.

“We’ve been involved with inmate voting even before I was jail superintendent,” said Asbell. “This is something that we’ve always facilitated, so there’s really no learning curve for our facility because we’ve been proactive for a number of years.”

Asbell said what has changed in recent years is being able to work directly with the Peoria County Election Commission, which has made the process more systematic.

“It’s still processed that same way, but we really do this more in unison,” said Asbell. “Anyone needs to register to vote, we have a system in place where the Election Commission comes out for a day and they’ll register, and they will allow voting at the same time.”

According to Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower, a similar process is in place there.

“We provide a list of in-custody people to the County Clerk’s office, and from there they determine who is qualified and registered to vote,” Lower said in an email to WCBU. “After that, someone from the clerk’s office will bring the ballots to the jail for those that are qualified, and they are allowed to vote if they choose.”

Even with the new law, some criminal justice reform advocates argue there are still barriers for inmates to vote. According to the nonpartisan Prison Policy Institute that advocates against mass incarceration, confusion about eligibility is one of the biggest factors.

But there also are issues like having access to information needed to register, like a driver’s license or social security number, or even delays in jail mail making it difficult to meet registration deadlines.

In McLean County, only about a half-dozen people have requested ballots for the 2020 general election. But Asbell expects better turnout. 

Asbell said the Peoria County jail’s current population is about 240, with COVID-19 health and safety guidelines limiting the double-bunk cells to single occupants. He said between 90-95% of the detainees are on pre-trial status and eligible to vote – but usually less than half actually do.

“For this election cycle, I do not have the numbers because it’s really the day of when we see how many actually want to come down to either register or to complete their ballot,” he said.

“When we did this for, I believe, the last primary in March, it was roughly about 40% of the population. I expect it to be higher, being a presidential election versus a primary. If there’s 240 (detainees), you might have 100-120 votes from the inmate population.”

Dana Vollmer contributed to this report. 

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