Attorney says constitutional amendment not needed to restore voting rights to prisoners

(The Center Square) – Legislators may take another look at legislation to allow prisoners to vote.

Senate Bill 828 would restore voting rights to any person serving a sentence who is otherwise eligible to vote according to U.S. law.

Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Senior Counsel Ami Gandhi says this bill is the culmination of years of effort.

“We’re pleased to see such a legislative initiative has more traction in 2021 in Illinois than ever before,” she said.

The proposition was close to being heard last session, but the legislature ran out of time. Ghandi said dedication by those from directly affected communities has been the driving force.

“The disenfranchisement of people serving sentences in prison ends up having a disproportionate impact on black and brown communities, particularly black people who are incarcerated at much higher rates as compared to their existence in the general population,” she said. “That demographic reality paired with the fact that historically and today there have not been sound safety or policy reasons for disenfranchising people in connection to a sentence – it becomes clear that the continued disenfranchisement over time has been a tool to hold people back from having a voice and influencing elections.”

State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) is the bill’s chief sponsor. Earlier hearings on the proposal drew questions around if a constitutional amendment would be necessary for the bill to have any effect.

Gandhi said while Illinois’ constitution does say voting rights will be taken away upon conviction, it leaves room.

“The constitution also gives legislators flexibility about when to restore that voting right,” she said.

Illinois’ constitution states voting rights shall be restored “not later than” the completion of a sentence, according to Gandhi.

“It’s that ‘not later than’ language, those three simple words, that give the legislature flexibility to decide the timing of when the re-enfranchisement should happen,” she said.

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