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While States Restrict Voting, Illinois Would Expand Access

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SPRINGFIELD  — For Illinois, the changes to voting law that legislators made in the final hours of their legislative session this week seemed innocuous. In some cases — voting by mail, allowing jail inmates awaiting trial to cast ballots — are affirmation or expansion of practices already put to the test.

But they present an electoral dichotomy with what’s happening in other states, where fury over the persistent false claims that last fall’s presidential election was stolen from the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, have encouraged local legislators in places such as Georgia, Texas and Arizona toward sharp restrictions on some of the whens and hows of balloting.

The legislation breezed through the assembly in Springfield, controlled by Democratic supermajorities, on strictly partisan votes, but there’s little doubt Gov. J.B. Pritzker will sign it when it reaches him. And Democrats pledge to push further with pending legislation to restore the franchise to those sentenced to prison immediately, not after completing their sentences.

“It sends a message to the nation that this is how it’s supposed to be…,” said Rep. Maurice West, the Rockford Democrat who sponsored the voting-rights plan. “While other states are focused on voter suppression, Illinois is focused on voter empowerment…. We’re trying to make it accessible for anyone and everyone within our state while maintaining the security and the integrity of the vote.”

With a nearly 20-year lock on control of both House and Senate, Democrats have in recent years eased voting access. Pile on top of that the COVID-19 crisis and the accompanying precautions for safe spring and fall elections last year, and there are the elements for West’s measure.

“The General Assembly drew the lesson that we could do this in the future, in a way that would really bring people in to participate,” said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “It stands in sharp contrast to Texas or Florida, where those Republican governors have actually said, ‘Hey, we ran a free, fair and open election — and oh, by the way, what we’re going to do is make it harder to do that the next time.”

West’s bill, sponsored in the Senate by Chicago Democratic Sen. Mike Simmons, allows counties to establish permanent lists for which voters can sign up to get mail-in ballots sent to them. County jails could allow those awaiting trial to vote; it’s already a practice in Chicago’s Cook County Jail.

Election Day would continue to be a state holiday and empty schools use as polling places. Citing security and other issues, schoolhouses have opted out of recent elections, leaving authorities scrambling for polling stops.

Every county would be required to establish at least one universal voting center to give voters alternatives sites and high schools would have to allow voter registration on campus. West is particularly proud of a provision requiring state election officials to devise options for allowing disabled people to vote by mail in privacy, instead of assisted by someone in a voting booth.

“We should be doing everything we can to let the people vote and let the people have their voice in the American democracy,” House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a Hillside Democrat, said last week.

The legislation also takes the dramatic step of pushing Illinois’ primary election — including balloting for governor — from March 15 to June 28, 2022, because lawmakers have decided not to draw new post-Census district lines for members of Congress until official Census figures, delayed by the pandemic, arrive later this summer.

West calls “unfortunate” the events in Texas and elsewhere, which include proposals to make it easier for judges to overturn election results and for state officials to defend against voting fraud and other lawsuits.

Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, wants to broaden the franchise with legislation to reinstate voting rights to the incarcerated long before they currently are. It didn’t get a vote before the Legislature’s adjournment but remains in play.

The Illinois Constitution strips the vote from people criminally convicted and sentenced to prison or jail, but orders that the right “be restored not later than upon completion of his sentence.” That’s been interpreted as when someone is released from lockup.

Ford’s proposal rests on the words “not later than.” He believes the right to vote should be reinstated immediately — a pro forma 14 days as the legislation stands — allowing inmates to to vote behind bars, keeping them engaged with their families and hometowns and better preparing them for re-entry.

“They want to vote for people in their communities, when they talk to their families and loved ones about aldermen, ones they should be voting in or out,” Ford said. “These people have children in schools. They need to be voting.”

He said there would be no state cost and no prison-routine disruption because the process would involve ballots sent to and returned by inmates by mail.

The Illinois State Board of Elections is not opposed but has maintained 1970 debate over the constitution indicates a desire to reinstate voting rights only when the inmate is back in the community, spokesman Matt Dietrich said.

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