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Cook County Jail set for in-person voting despite COVID-19 setbacks: ‘It’s also about social justice, it’s about fairness, it’s about hope’
Monday, September 21, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Kelli Smith
During the March primary, Cook County Jail for the first time in its long history operated as an election precinct for in-person voting, according to county officials.
Officials are now preparing to have voting at the jail during the general election — but COVID-19 has complicated those efforts.
“We’re all waiting to see how this is going to play out,” said Mary Cortese, 42, one of about 1,500 pretrial detainees who voted at the jail during the primary. “We’re still getting the information, it’s just slowed things down.”
The jail was made an election precinct after Illinois passed legislation last year requiring counties with at least 3 million residents — only Cook County fits that description — to establish a “temporary branch polling place in the county jail.”
More than a third of the 5,300 people incarcerated at the jail voted in the primary, “a significant increase” from past years, according to the Chicago Board of Elections, which along with the sheriff’s and county clerk’s offices, helps run the jail’s polling places.
In previous elections, detainees voted through absentee ballots. That contributed to smaller turnouts — only 967 detainees citywide participated in the 2016 primary and 1,329 in the 2016 general election.
County officials believe the jail may have been the first in the country to operate as a precinct, said Cook County sheriff’s office spokesman Matt Walberg. In the general election, partly as a concession to the pandemic but also due to a smaller population, the jail is set to operate four polling places, three fewer than in the primary.
The jail was a hot spot for the coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic. In the weeks following the primary, COVID-19 spread rapidly in the jail, killing seven detainees before officials stemmed the outbreak. Some inmates decried the jail’s conditions, prompting a lawsuit and subsequent court mandate that the sheriff’s office improve COVID-19 protections for inmates.
Marlena Jentz, assistant executive director of programs at the Cook County sheriff’s office, said the jail has been adhering to health guidelines and will continue doing so for early voting. The jail requires a screen questionnaire and temperature check for anyone entering the facility, and social distancing and masks for detainees and visitors.
The jail plans to conduct in-person voting the weekends of Oct. 17-18 and Oct. 24-25.
“We will continue to follow those guidelines to make sure that we do all that we can to enforce protective measures and make sure that we take the appropriate steps to have a successful early voting,” Jentz said.
Local election officials briefly discussed going back to mail-in voting at the jail because of COVID-19. Community groups pushed back against the idea, said Stevie Valles, executive director of the civic advocacy organization Chicago Votes, which works closely with officials on the jail’s election activities.
It’s difficult to reach and register inmates in time for absentee ballot deadlines, Valles said. In-person voting on the jail’s campus seemed “the most equitable way” to ensure votes were counted.
“They are getting as equal access to the ballot as anybody who’s outside of jail, which is legally their right,” Valles said.
Another initiative impacted by COVID-19 has been the jail’s educational programs. With the facility’s restricted visitor policies, guest speakers haven’t been able to conduct civic-oriented seminars as they did during the primary.
Jentz said officials are airing civic-oriented programs on the jail’s televisions, providing Informational flyers and having questions answered through the inmate services department.
The jail’s voting and educational initiatives are part of a larger effort to ensure those in custody return to the community “more productive, engaged citizens,” according to Jentz.
“It’s not just about compliance with the law in Illinois, but it’s also about social justice, it’s about fairness, it’s about hope,” she said.
If not for COVID-19, Valles said he and his co-workers would be discussing civic participation with detainees at the jail every month.
“Without us being in there every month having those dialogues, there’s a risk that folks are not as engaged as they’ve been in prior elections we’ve been doing this,” Valles said.
He described inmates’ reaction to voting as “an emotional one” hard to put into words. Allowing them to vote in person seemed to communicate a message that “society does care” about them, he said.
“When you see their faces and kind of felt their energy, you knew it was like, ‘Damn, this is a big deal,’” Valles said. "They know it’s a big deal. And the emotion on their faces and the way they verbalized it is just — it makes you feel as an advocate like you’re doing the right thing.”
Kelli Smith is the 2020 Don Wycliff fellow at the Chicago Tribune. She recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where she majored in political science and television with a minor in journalism. Before joining the Tribune, she interned at The Dallas Morning News and KTSM, the local NBC affiliate in El Paso.