Formerly Incarcerated People Can Vote in Illinois. But They Must Take a Civics Class First

NBCLX sat down with the college student responsible for the Illinois law that empowers formerly incarcerated people to vote.

It's a common misconception that all formerly incarcerated people lose the ability to vote. In fact, in most states, after you're released from prison or after your parole or probation ends, your right to vote is automatically restored.

But laws allowing the formerly incarcerated to vote don't matter if formerly incarcerated people don't know about them, right? That's why Illinois, where formerly incarcerated people can vote once they're released from prison, is enacting legislation to make sure they know their rights.

Illinois House Bill 2541, aka the Re-Entering Citizens Civics Education Act, went into effect in January 2020. It created a mandatory civics curriculum for people about to re-enter society. The courses break down the basics of voting, elections and U.S. government.

To learn more, NBCLX sat down Alexandria Boutros, community organizing director for the nonpartisan nonprofit Chicago Votes, who helped make the bill a reality.

NBCLX: What was the inspiration behind drafting the Re-Entering Citizens Civics Education Act?

Boutros: House Bill 2541 started off as just an idea. I was a college student at DePaul University, and I got involved with a program that brings higher education to people who are incarcerated. The class was Law, Politics and Mass Incarceration. We did a class project together, and it resulted in a survey being created by my colleagues who are currently incarcerated at Stateville Prison. The majority of people who did the survey said they are very interested in voting, they're very engaged, they followed the 2016 presidential election very closely. They said that if they had the right to vote in prison, they would, and if they had access to civic lessons, they would take them. And so out of that we thought, "Well, this is a bill."

NBCLX: How is the civics curriculum set up?

Boutros: There are three standalone 90-minute courses that are all taught by people who are also incarcerated. The courses don't have to go in order, either.  The first one is the Power of Elections. The second is Voting 101, and the third is Government 101. In every single course, you practice filling out a voter registration form and a sample ballot.

NBCLX: What are people learning in these courses?

Boutros: You're learning significantly more in these courses than you would learn in high school or college. We dove deep into Illinois-specific voting rights, voting history and all of the different elected offices that we have power over in Illinois. We talk felony disenfranchisement and do case studies. We do an activity over Jim Crow literacy tests and break down the differences between political parties. We talk about same-day voter registration right in Illinois. That is so important because it makes it so much more accessible for so many people. And then we also teach people about what's on their ballot, show them the different websites and resources that will help you see a sample ballot, who's up for election, where you can you find more information.

NBCLX: Why is it important for people, formerly incarcerated or not, to be civically engaged?

Boutros: Civics is everything from voting to talking to your lawmakers to court watching. We cannot sit back and say, "Oh, it doesn't involve me," or, "I don't want to be involved in that," and then get extremely annoyed at how frustrating life is because of laws and rules that could be changed. We can change all of those. We have to be involved at every step of the process. Democracy must be a way of life.