Grantee Spotlights

Democracy Desk: “Unlock Civics” Advocates Expanding Voting Rights and Civic Education for Incarcerated Community Members



At a time when many headlines focus on efforts to suppress voting rights nationwide, Illinois advocates have been quietly making history by expanding access to voting rights and voter education for a perceived unlikely population: incarcerated community members.

We talked with two of our Democracy Program grantees, Chicago Votes and Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to learn more about their inspiring work.

The work began with a Chicago Votes program to register voters in Cook County Jail – the nation’s largest. They registered more than 5,000 new voters in 2017. A volunteer reached out about improving access for incarcerated community members to cast ballots. Seeing a need to do more, Chicago Votes partnered with like-minded advocates at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and launched Unlock Civics, a program designed to advocate for systemic solutions to improve voter access for citizens impacted by the criminal legal system in the county jail and state corrections system.

“Our focus on carceral voting is somewhat unique among legal organizations. We got questions from the time I started working here in 2016 about voter eligibility and voting rights during elections from people who are incarcerated or their loved ones,” says Ami Gandhi, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Midwest Voting Rights Programs at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee. “Having to be responsive to those questions helped us build that muscle and made us realize we had work to do in that area.”

Photo courtesy of Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

In 2019, the organizations played a pivotal role in successfully advocating for a groundbreaking package of criminal legal reforms passed by the Illinois Legislature, which improved voters access for incarcerated community members providing them with the opportunity to register to vote, cast an absentee ballot, and required Cook County Jail to offer in-person early voting. These new reforms incorporated nonpartisan civics education into rehabilitation programming in Illinois’ criminal legal system.

The following year, Cook County Jail made history by becoming the first jail in the nation to become a polling place during the 2020 Illinois primary —a feat that flew under the radar because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The groundbreaking work of cutting through layers of government bureaucracy and getting the cooperation of city, county and state officials to make policy changes that benefit incarcerated community members’ ability to participate in democracy has inspired other advocates and jails nationwide to adopt the same framework. At least 15 other states have followed suit or are on their way.

Chicago Votes Co-Executive Director Stevie Valles explains why this jail voting program is so important: “Ultimately, it’s about (incarcerated community members) advocating for their own humanity and making sure that the basic rights of a human living in a democracy are not unfairly stripped given the systemic flaws in our society that led to them being incarcerated.”

Photo courtesy of Chicago Votes.

Voter turnout at Cook County Jail has consistently met or outpaced citywide turnout over the last several elections since the 2019 state legislation passed, and that includes the recent March 2024 presidential primary. Clifford Helm, a voting rights attorney at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, says he noted tremendous enthusiasm among incarcerated community members who voted in the March primary, with many specifically mentioning the civics education course and voter information efforts leading up to the election. Through the efforts of another partner organization, Speak Up and Vote, Will County Jail also has had a polling location for eligible incarcerated community members to vote since 2022.

Valles, from Chicago Votes, and Gandhi and Helm from Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, all credit the collective efforts of advocates and organizers, elected and appointed officials, and the substantive input of incarcerated community members themselves for the success of these efforts. But they agree that there’s so much more work to do.

Expanding nonpartisan, peer-led civics education for state incarcerated community members and youth in juvenile correctional facilities through the Re-entry Civics Education (RACE) Act, which is provided within a year of release, is a priority. The measure is widely considered to be the first civics program of its kind, with a designation for nonpartisan civics courses to be taught by incarcerated peer educators trained by organizations like Chicago Votes, DePaul University, and Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, which provided legal counsel and technical support in crafting the legislation and developing the civics curriculum.

“We know that the work is more effective led by someone who has had that life experience. If it was done by someone who didn’t have that experience of incarceration and disenfranchisement, it would be unconvincing. Over time it’s less training and more discussion, non-partisan, factual and motivational,” Gandhi says.

Contextualizing the power that incarcerated community members have through their ability to vote has made a tremendous difference in reframing how they see themselves and the impact they can have, says Valles.

“They can vote for judges, the state’s attorney who decides what is prosecuted and how it’s prosecuted, for lawmakers, who can pass policies that can make it easier for folks to bond out or get rid of bond in general,” he says. “They can have a voice in systemic change that impacts lives of those on the outside. It matters that they have factual and nonpartisan information.”

Chicago Votes and Chicago Lawyers’ Committee are not done yet. Unlock Civics continues to set its sights higher. Up next, they are building support to restore voting rights to people while still incarcerated serving jail or prison sentences rather than upon release. If successful, Illinois would become the first state to re-enfranchise voting rights for currently incarcerated community members.

The organizers said they are proud their collective work has been successful here and has managed to avoid the political pitfalls and culture wars that happen in other states. They’re also keenly aware that their work has been a beacon for others to emulate nationwide.

“When organizers and directly impacted people — including eligible voters and people who should be eligible voters — are weighing in about the policy or legal or practical changes, it completely changes the landscape for advocacy work and the relevance of advocacy work,” Gandhi says. “It's just much more likely to have an advocacy campaign that is positioned to succeed if people most directly impacted are in the early stages of carrying out the work and strategizing and making the judgment calls about what has to be adjusted over time.”

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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