CHICAGO — In most states, it is common practice to strip convicted felons of their voting rights while they serve their sentences. In some cases, the right to vote can be rescinded permanently. But Illinois could become the first in the nation to restore voting rights to prisoners through legislative action.
For Renaldo Hudson, the lock hanging from a light in his apartment is a symbol and constant reminder of the 37 years he spent behind bars.
“Every time I come in my kitchen, or I turn on this light, I feel that I know they'll never, ever, ever because of my doing lock me up again,” he said.
In 1983, when Hudson was just 19 years old, he took a man’s life.
“I committed the act of murder, robbery. I was a teenage drug addict who simply wanted to be high. I did not have a sense of my ability to act in a way that I should have,” said Hudson.
Originally sentenced to die by lethal injection, the sentence was commuted to life in prison where Hudson learned to read, got his bachelor’s degree in divinity, and was eventually granted clemency. Today, he’s the director of education for the Illinois Prison Project.
“The death penalty of execution is one thing. Death by incarceration exists because people in prison don't have the right to vote,” said Hudson.
In 37 states, felons lose their eligibility to vote while incarcerated. In Maine, Vermont and Washington D.C. they’ve never lost the right. And in 11 states. the right to vote can be permanently stripped.
“In 2015, I was wrongfully convicted, and I served about four years in federal prison. And during that time, I was unable to vote,” said Avalon Betts-Gaston, project manager for the Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice.
For Gaston, disenfranchisement while incarcerated meant a loss not only of her own political voice but as an advocate for her young children.
“We're not just hurting that person, we're actually hurting their family and as an extension, their community,” she said. “Because we're saying your voice doesn't matter and you're no longer part of this community.”
According to the Sentencing Project, in 2020, 5.2 million Americans were disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
“Individuals who are in prison and committed felonies are individuals who have shown basically complete contempt for the laws and rules that all the rest of us have agreed on to govern our civil society,” said Hans Von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.
Allowing inmates serving felony sentences to vote he says is bad policy.
“Judges and prosecutors are elected. And you're going to give individuals who break the law the ability to choose who those prosecutors, judges are. Again, not a good idea,” said Spakovsky.
But Illinois is poised to become the first in the nation to restore those voting rights with Senate Bill 828, The Voting in Prison Bill.
“It's a bill that would re-enfranchise community members in prison,” said Ami Gandhi, senior counsel at advocacy group Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
Gandhi says the bill is about bringing equity to those unduly impacted by imprisonment.
“Black people have been very disproportionately affected by our mass incarceration system and as a result have been disproportionately disenfranchised as well,” said Gandhi.
Gandhi says while Black people make up about 15% of the state's population, they account for more than half of Illinois’ prison population.
For Renaldo Hudson voting for the first time in decades after being released in 2020 was empowering beyond his imagination.
“It was amazing, man. It was like, imagine, like dreaming of being a part of the electoral process and then all of a sudden, it just being put into your hands,” he said.
It’s why activists like him and Gaston are waging a fight to restore those rights.
“When you don't have power at the ballot box, then you don't have power over your everyday conditions. And so, people who are incarcerated lack that necessary power,” said Gaston.
Taking away that power for any reason they argue fits within the paradigm of punitive justice but not in the space of restorative justice.