Unlock Civics

The Intersection of Voting Rights and American Legal System Reform

In the fall of 2017, Chicago Votes was asked to be the official sponsor of election activities in the Cook County Jail (CCJ). What started as a voter registration drive once a month, has expanded to include in-person election coordination, civic education, local administrative advocacy, and statewide legislative advocacy.

The goal is simple, increase access to the ballot and civic knowledge for Illinois’ incarcerated population. CCJ is one of the largest single-site county pre-detention facilities in the United States, admitting approximately 100,000 people annually and averaging a daily population of 6,000 people. While over 90% of those incarcerated in this facility have the right to vote, many of them do not know they are eligible to vote and are missing out on their opportunity to participate.

What started out as the Chicago Votes’ CCJ Votes initiative has evolved into our Unlock Civics initiative, addressing the disconnect at a systematic level. Our Unlock Civics initiative encompasses our CCJ Votes initiative, Court Watching program, Civics in Prison, and Unlock Civics legislative efforts– all of which work at the intersection of organizing and advocacy to ensure that people affected by the American legal system know their civic rights and responsibilities.

Our 2021 Unlock Civics Policy Platform

Chicago Votes’ #UnlockCivics legislative platform works at the intersection of organizing and advocacy to ensure that people affected by the American legal system have access to their civic rights and responsibilities.

The year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many things. The perilous conditions people in prison endure and the role exclusion from our democratic processes play in exacerbating such conditions are among them. Lack of quality judicial training, the abolishment of a parole system, and the disenfranchisement of people in prison have all contributed to the crisis occurring in Illinois prisons. People are serving extreme sentences–without the opportunity for early release–and unable to hold elected officials accountable to hearing and addressing their needs. Given the impact of COVID-19 on individuals experiencing incarceration, the need to restore the right to vote to people in prisons and ensure people impacted by the legal system have access to all their civic rights and responsibilities is even more urgent.

Silenced: An Unlock Civics Documentary

Silenced: An Unlock Civics Documentary is a story of the democracy that exists in the United States, that silences millions of people who have been or are currently disenfranchised through incarceration. When people in prison cannot vote, influence policy, or hold elected officials accountable, things like inhumane prison conditions, problematic judges, and “tough-on-crime” policies persist more easily.

Court Watching

Chicago Votes is partnering with Chicago Appleseed to execute our first joint Court Watching program! Volunteers who sign up to be a part of our Court Watching program will assist us in observing court proceedings and judges in the Cook County Court system, while also completing our Judicial Accountability evaluation form. Court watching is a means of holding those working within the American Legal System accountable to treating everyone who goes in front of a judge with dignity and free from bias. 

On the Road

Our work in Cook County Jail has inspired organizations and jails across the country to adopt our framework.

Organizin’ in Court, Jail, and Prison.

Cook County Jail Votes

Chicago Votes has been coordinating voter registration drives in the Cook County Jail since September 2017 registering over 5,000 new voters. Volunteers enter the jail every second Sunday of the month to register community members in pretrial detention. Chicago Votes also works with our partners to support the elections process in the jail. With the passage of Senate Bill 2090, the Cook County Jail became the first jail in the country to become a polling place during the 2020 Illinois Primary Elections.

Civics in Prison

In 2019 Chicago Votes helped pass House Bill 2541, “The Re-entry Civics Education Act” which requires every person leaving prison in Illinois to receive 3, ninety-minute civic classes. Of course, we played a major role in drafting the curriculum are working with partners to ensure this bill is fully implemented in 2020.

Judicial Accountability

Chicago Votes has worked to demystify the judicial system in Illinois by launching two, unique initiatives that educate voters around the judicial elections. The first is our judicial voter guide program and the second is our Court Watching program. Chicago Votes works with partners to give voters and volunteers a behind the scenes glance into the judicial process in Chicago.