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USA: pretrial detainees to vote at first polling place in Cook County Jail

42 voting machines will be brought in during the first two weekends in March — marking the first time in the country a polling place will be available for pretrial detainees.

Michael Watford never got a chance to vote.

After he was convicted of a non-violent felony in Wisconsin at 18, the now 28-year-old was barred from casting a ballot.

But now that Watford is in Illinois — where he can vote, despite his criminal record — he decided it was the right time to exercise his right while awaiting trial in Cook County Jail on a separate case.

“I registered to vote because I never had the right to vote before,” Watford said recently at the jail where 42 voting machines will be brought in during the first two weekends in March — marking the first time in the country a polling place will be available for pretrial detainees.

Cook County Jail’s polling station is possible because a new law that took effect Jan. 1. of Senate Bill 2090 was vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 but signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last year. The law states that jails in counties of more than 3 million people are allowed to host a temporary polling place for those eligible to vote.

The population restriction for now means the law applies only to Cook County. Illinois’ 101 other counties will continue to use mail-in ballots.

“The only people in this state that are constitutionally ineligible to vote are people that’s in prison,” state Rep. La Shawn Ford said. The new law “made sure that every county, 102 across the state, did not violate the detainees’ right to vote.”

About 20,000 people awaiting trial in Illinois have a constitutional right to vote, said Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes voter registration and participation. In Cook County Jail, 98% of the population is awaiting trial.

“That’s a giant voter block right there, especially people who were impacted by our criminal justice system,” Dean said. Since October 2017, Chicago Votes has registered 5,382 detainees in the county.

“Generally, individuals who are pre-trial have the constitutional right to vote while in jail,” said Khadine Bennett, director of advocacy and intergovernmental affairs for ACLU Illinois.

“However, if a state has a law on the book that takes away the right to vote permanently when a person is convicted, that pretrial person would not be able to vote because of that law.”

In Watford’s case, he is able to vote in Illinois because the state prevents only those currently serving time from voting.

Restrictions regarding voting and criminal backgrounds vary from state to state, so it can be confusing for jails officials to know who can vote.

Many counties “didn’t realize that [voting] was a right that pretrial detainees had,” Bennett said.

“There’s a pretty wide swing as far as … what goes on in the other jails,” said Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart.

SB 2090 addressed this confusion by requiring all Illinois jails to provide detainees with registration materials and mail-in ballots.

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