State legislators hosted a virtual town hall on Jan. 31 to discuss their effort to reinstate voting rights for people who’ve been in prison through passage of Senate Bill 828. The bill came just three votes shy of being passed last spring.

If the bill is passed, it would make Illinois the third state to have such a law in place. Only felons in Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia never lose their right to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When asked if he expects the bill to pass this time, West Side lawmaker Rep. La Shawn K. Ford responded: “Absolutely.” Ford, who couldn’t attend Monday’s meeting, serves as the bill’s chief sponsor in the House.

Sen. Mike Simmons, the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, stressed that taking away voting rights is an issue of human rights and equity and it also impacts effective reentry into society.

“We have people that come back into their communities from our prisons; they can’t find a job, the social service workers are not there for them; they can’t access housing; they can’t access health care; and then we wonder why so many people end up recidivating,” Simmons said.

“I see giving them back their voice and giving them back their civic participation as a fundamental step in preparing them to ultimately reenter their society fully restored and revested in those communities,” he said.

Chicago-based hip hop artist and activist King Moosa, who started the meeting with a rap piece, spoke of his personal experience being incarcerated at age 14 and eventually becoming a juvenile advocate and supporter of voting rights for people who’ve been incarcerated.

“Disenfranchising people is disenfranchising real people like me. You know, people with talent, people with soul, people that’s eager and thirsty to learn and thirsty to make a contribution to their community,” Moosa said.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who has worked with Ford on similar bills, said the legislation is eligible to be voted on again since it was so close to passing last year.

“The bill is on what is called postpone consideration, which means that it is teed up to be called whenever we are ready, but we get one shot,” she said.

Cassidy said work is being done with partners such as Chicago Votes to confirm the 57 representatives who voted for the bill last spring are still on board and that there will be enough additional representatives present to vote to muster the needed 60 votes.

“It has to be a time when every single one of our votes is present on the House floor,” she said. “We have no margin for error.”

The House must be in session for the vote to take place, and this week’s winter storm has interfered with lawmakers meeting in Springfield as originally planned.

To Ford’s knowledge, Gov. J.B. Pritzker may be supportive of the bill.

“I’m not sure what his position would be given during the election season … our understanding is that if it passes both chambers, he’s very happy to entertain it and to possibly sign it,” the Austin legislator said.

In a press release Ford notes that “voting is a constitutional right for Americans, and as long as a person maintains citizenship, their voting right should remain protected. People serving time in state prisons shouldn’t be locked out of our democracy.”

During Monday’s meeting, several speakers highlighted the problem of women who are incarcerated not being able to vote on matters that impact their children.

“Seventy percent of women who are incarcerated are primary caregivers,” said Avalon Betts-Gaston, project manager for the Illinois Alliance for Reentry & Justice.

“They have minor children at home with no one to speak at the ballot box to make sure they have access to clean air, clean water, schools that are properly funded … no one is voicing and advocating for them because their parents are incarcerated.”

In addition to many women in prison being mothers, many also face violence and difficulty accessing basic hygiene items, said Maureen Keane, co-founder of She Votes Illinois.

“Are these human rights violations a direct result of people incarcerated not having the right to vote?

“They have no representation, no one to hold accountable, no one whose office they could write and say, ‘I’m a voter and this is my community needs,’” Keane said.

If approved in the House, the legislation will move to the Senate.

“I think that with the advocacy efforts and the way that Rep. Ford has managed this bill, I’m confident that we’re going to get there,” Simmons said. “I will continue to work the roll call. We’ve got a lot of people that are already on that have said they will vote ‘yes’ on this bill.”

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