One week ahead of the Illinois legislative veto session, Grammy Award winning artist and founder of FREEAMERICA, John Legend, writes a letter to Illinois lawmakers asking for their support of Senate Bill 828 (SB828), Voting in Prison. The letter follows a series of actions the artist has taken to support voting rights restoration to incarcerated populations. He has previously recorded a video in support of the bill and tweeted out actions his followers can take to advocate for the bill’s passage.
The Illinois Constitution states that a person in prison “shall lose the right to vote, which right shall be restored not later than upon completion of his sentence.” The exact length of disenfranchisement is not specified. However, the Illinois Election Code specifies the length, prohibiting any person that is serving a sentence of confinement in any penal institution from voting throughout the duration of their sentence. SB 828 repeals the Election Code provisions and restores the right to vote to people 14 days post-conviction.
The letter reads:
To the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives,
Illinois has been a leader in voter access and has the opportunity to further cement this legacy with the passage of Senate Bill 828, restoring voting rights to the state’s prison population. As the founder of FREEAMERICA, a campaign to transform America’s criminal justice system, I have watched as Illinois has set an example for other states with the passage of online voter registration, same-day voter registration, voting in jails, and civics in prison. Now, the legislature has the opportunity to be the first state in the nation to restore voting rights to people in prison, joining Maine and Vermont as states without felony disenfranchisement.
While Illinois has been a leader in voter access, the current practice of disenfranchising people in prison is a remnant of racist policies and practices in the state’s history. Currently there are roughly 30,000 people in Illinois prisons who are unable to vote. Of them, 55% are Black although Black people only make up about 15% of the total Illinois population. The disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black people is part of a long national legacy of passing laws to silence Black voters.
Illinois’ democracy has yet to reach its full potential, but when it does other states will follow its lead.
The fight to enfranchise people who have experienced incarceration is a growing one. In 2018, Florida restored voting rights to over one million people who had experienced incarceration. In 2019, Illinois passed Senate Bill 2090, ensuring voters in pretrial detention have access to the ballot. In 2020, Washington D.C. restored voting rights to people in prison. Now, it’s 2021 and Illinois is perfectly positioned to re-enfranchise the 30,000 men, women, mothers, fathers, loved ones, veterans, and people incarcerated in its prisons.
When we exclude people from our democracy, we allow for their needs to go unheard. Silencing those directly impacted by incarceration only perpetuates further injustice in our legal system and our communities.
Illinois’ Senate Bill 828 will put an end to felony disenfranchisement in Illinois, allowing people in prison to vote. When our democracy includes everyone, our democracy can better serve everyone.