November 19, 2019


Political Scientist Christina Rivers: Restoring the Fundamental Right to Vote

A democracy that’s truly representative of the people depends on the people to exercise their right to vote. There are some groups of people, however, who regularly don’t vote—because they don’t know they’re eligible. Contrary to popular belief, in Illinois, a convicted felon regains eligibility to vote as soon as he or she leaves a corrections facility. Anyone awaiting trial in jail is eligible to vote, too. DePaul political scientist Christina Rivers, an expert in voting rights and a DePaul Presidential Fellow, helped pass legislation to provide voter education to soon-to-be released inmates. In this episode, she discusses these initiatives, her work with the Inside Out Program and her latest research: racial gerrymandering.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I’m your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications.

In the United States, we exercise choice in selecting leaders whose decisions influence our lives by participating in elections. It is why so many marginalized groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and women, have fought over the years for this fundamental right.

But even today, there are people who are eligible to vote who are left out. Many people don’t know that in Illinois, a convicted felon regains eligibility to vote as soon as he or she leaves a corrections facility. Anyone awaiting trial in jail is eligible to vote, too, but often processes aren’t in place for them to do so.

DePaul political scientist Christina Rivers is working to change that. Today, we’ll learn how. Christina, thank you for joining DePaul Download.

CHRISTINA RIVERS: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, I want to talk eventually about how you got involved in this, but I want to first start by asking why your work is so important? I know that one of the reasons I vote is that my grandmothers would come back to haunt me if I didn’t routinely and willfully cast a vote whenever I am able.

I don’t know if you grew up in that same kind of atmosphere, but what got you started in this and why is this work so important?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: Well, my grandmothers are sitting right there next to your grandmothers, watching to make sure, and I believe Chicago is actually the first place my grandmother could vote. She migrated up here from Texas and at the time when she was living in Texas, she wasn’t able to vote based on her race. So, I believe Chicago was the first place she voted and she voted, like many Chicagoans, early and often, and made sure that we all exercised our rights and talked to us about that a lot. So, she is sitting there with your grandparents.

I got into this work in graduate school. I was originally looking at education policy and, for various reasons, I got pulled over into voting rights. I had a classmate who told me about this voting rights class and it was a voting law class, and I remember thinking, I have no interest in law. I hadn’t really thought about taking a voting rights class, although I had certainly been exercising my right to vote. And this classmate said, ‘You’ve got to take this class. This woman is phenomenal.’ In fact, she was.

She sort of opened up this world of constitutional law and voting rights, and I came to realize that I also liked studying certain aspects of the law in terms of studying it as opposed to practicing it.

So, my dissertation work was all about representation and race and that sort of implicit debate that the Supreme Court has been having with the Congressional Black Caucus over the role of race and interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, you know, when it comes to things like districting. How much can we take race into account? What are the – what is the scope of the Voting Rights Act with respect to those issues? And about 10 years into being here at DePaul, I ‘discovered,’ I am putting that in air quotes, these issues related to felony disenfranchisement laws and shortly thereafter, I learned more about prison-based gerrymanders, neither of which were in my training as a graduate student in political science.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I know you’ve written a book about this, about the Fourteenth Amendment, about voting rights. Do you believe that race still plays a role?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely, and it’s – my analogy is it’s like trying to pick up a bead of mercury. I’m dating myself – when old thermometers would fall on the floor and the mercury would go all over the place. You can’t pick it up.

So, really trying to pick up this conversation about race and the role of race, if you’re looking at the Fourteenth Amendment or the intent for the Voting Rights Act, as I try to pick up that bead of mercury, it is a difficult conversation to have in a calm, rational way, and folks either look at these laws as completely colorblind or others would say no, they are actually – allow for race-based measures that are remedial to remedy the effects of decades of racism. So, there becomes this conflation of race consciousness with racism and it is a very difficult equation to get past.

So, when folks draw districts, they take a lot of things into account. Typically, it is party that is first and foremost, but other times it has to do with the race and ethnicity of a particular region or jurisdiction so as not to dilute or crack the voting power of people in those jurisdictions, particularly those who have a history of marginalized votes.

So, it’s still allowed. It’s just that recent court decisions have made it much more difficult to use race and for the most part, it cannot be the primary factor. So, it’s again, that bead of mercury kind of keeps slipping out of peoples’ fingers. But it is very much that issue, at least, I think it is.

LINDA BLAKLEY: One of the things I wanted to also talk to you about was that you decided that you could do something. Figures show that 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the US. In August, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill 2541, the Reentering Citizen Civics Education Act. This bill was the result of a lot of hard work form yourselves and others. What does this bill, does it make funds to do and why is it this important?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: The bill mandates that the Department of Corrections, Illinois Department of Corrections and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice provide voter education and awareness as part of the exit process when people leave those two institutions.

So, currently, if somebody is leaving those institutions, and I know more about the Department of Corrections as opposed to Juvenile Justice, they have to go through a program where they go through certain workshops that sort of reorient them about finding housing, employment, getting IDs, really sort of basic how to get back on your feet.

So, we wrote the bill to include this voter ed workshop as part of these mandatory exit processes and we actually wrote the bill to be as cost-free as possible. So, the main costs of the bill are quite low, and it would be really in terms of the staffing to move the incarcerated folks back and forth. You know, that is a staffing cost. And the cost of the booklet and materials that we want to distribute. If we can find private funding, we will have that covered. But we very intentionally wrote the bill to cost as little as possible because we are well aware of the precarious state of the Illinois state budget and particularly, we knew that the Department of Corrections also had a very, very tight budget. So, we were very mindful to write it in a way that didn’t cost them.

LINDA BLAKLEY: But you know, it is designed in part for those who are leaving incarceration to actually return to full citizenship. So, to my mind, it might not be no cost is too high for someone to – you know.

CHRISTINA RIVERS: I would agree with that. Yeah. I would absolutely agree with that. You know, there is the reality that someone will say that it is, but you are absolutely right that no price really should be put on this, this really almost sacred right.

We also wrote it in a way that would give access to anybody who is in these facilities, access to this information, and so the main thing that we hope is that they are going to take out this small booklet, the curriculum that we’re coming up with. But it is also written in the law that this curriculum will be broadcast through the two internal channels that the departments of corrections have. We understand that they have one channel that is sort of a PSA channel and information is run across there in sort of text form, subtitle forms. So, the expectation is that the text of this curriculum will be downloaded, typed in so that people could see this if they chose to watch that.

The other channel they have is sort of an internal movie channel from what I’m told. They’ll show different films and so if we put this thing on a DVD, they can – the booklet, because we’re writing it to be more engaging, not just text across the page – that they can essentially broadcast that on this internal channel so if people want, whether they are getting out any time soon or not, they have an opportunity to get this information presented to them regardless of what their release date is. The bill is written or the law is written to provide this information within 12 months of release as part of their exit process.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Now, you have been involved in helping inmates for years. For those that might not know much about it, can you explain the inside/out prison exchange program and how you became involved with it at DePaul?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: Yes, I would love to. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is a program that started out of Temple University a little over 20 years ago and it instructs college instructors and others to teach courses inside a correctional institution, typically prisons and although in some cases, jails, with a class that is comprised half of incarcerated people and half of traditional, usually undergraduate students. So, we bring our students into the carceral setting to take these classes together.

One of the main points of the program is to break down barriers and stereotypes that people on either side of the divide, if you will, either side of the wall would have, you know? Outsiders have certain stereotypes about what a prisoner is like or what an incarcerated person is like. And sometimes people who are incarcerated have certain misgivings about what us outsiders are like, so it’s in part to break down those barriers and it’s also to educate outside students who may have inclinations to have a career, for example, in corrections, or people who want to be attorneys, either for defense or prosecution or for people who want to work with victims’ organizations, anywhere sort of along those lines. It gives them a chance to interact with folks who are directly affected by prison systems and the criminal legal system, the criminal justice system, rather than learning about this from a distance through a book or documentaries, not that there is anything wrong with those.

And so, DePaul’s Inside-Out Program was established around 2010 or 2011 or so by Professor Jacqueline Lazú in modern languages who is associate dean of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and the first instructor who taught in the program is Professor Kim Moe in philosophy and she teaches a restorative justice class there.

The program is itself centered around restorative justice, and so while courses taught in this program can vary, usually matching what the instructor’s interests are. The general commitment is that we have some restorative justice component in our class and so, Professor Moe taught this class to great interest and acclaim on the part of both inside and outside students. So, the natural question was ‘Can you get us some more classes?’ And so, I was so incredibly fortunate that Professor Lazú reached out to me to teach a class.

What they did is they pulled – the Inside-Out Program, by the way, is administered through Steans, the Steans program, and also through community service studies program. And so, they polled I believe current and past Inside-Out students, both incarcerated and not, and just said ‘hey, you know, we think we’re going to get a couple more faculty here. What are some of the topics that you would like?’

So, one of the topics was sort of a basic law class and then another one was about masculinity. Folks really kind of wanted to rethink what it meant to be a man, how to engage and reengage with people of the opposite sex and beyond.

So, Professor Lazú knew that I taught, I believe she knew that I taught – I was one of about three people in the political science department that teaches our introductory law and politics course and so she asked me if I would be willing to teach in this program. I had never heard of it but at this point, my work was shifting towards this issue of felony disenfranchisement and so I jumped on it and haven’t looked back.

At that point, there were three of us teaching in these programs. Shortly thereafter, we established a presence at Cook County and so Professor Moe teaches in both of those places, and I think there are about three to four classes offered at Cook County and three now at Stateville, Cook County Jail.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Are there success stories that you might be able to share either from an inside or an outside student?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: I have so many. I could be here literally for weeks talking about success stories. So, earlier, we were talking about a student that I had from the outside who rejoined us today. She happened to be in town. She graduated in 2018 and her goal is to be a dentist but she – a part of her vocation, her calling, is to provide dental services to incarcerated people. She had a background of administering to detained people in jail. Her family would do this. So, she wants to be able to provide dental care to incarcerated people. So, she is wrapping up her Masters in Public Health and is now applying to various dental schools. We all know she will get in. We’re hoping here, somewhere in Chicago. So, she just happened to be in town for an interview and came to the think tank with us today.

There are several examples like her. We have students who work for Chicago Votes for example, that does a lot to mobilize voters who are age – from high school up to 30. So, they are really mobilizing the youth vote. They were also instrumental in the formation and advocacy for HB2541, the law that was passed.

We have had students that work for the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under the law who was also instrumental in passing this bill.

Let’s see. There is another student who is now working for a program that has to do more with juvenile offenders. So, she is working back and forth and learning much more about the courtroom setting, trial setting. I mean, those stories can go on in terms of students from the outside.

I have another student that wanted to join the Chicago Police Department, so I believe he is now on the police force.

Insider success stories, again, can go on and on. Many of them are published scholars. Many of them contributed to a book recently that was published called The Long Term, and it’s a series of essays written by and about people who are incarcerated with very much of a local flavor and the contributors are incarcerated people at Stateville and other institutions, people who are released, formerly incarcerated, people like me who teach there, artists, activists, and it is a wonderful collection of about 40 stories and so many people who are on the inside contribute to those efforts.

There are people who have changed criminal laws in this state just based on writing their own appeals who have sort of either self-trained while they were incarcerated or who have taken paralegal type courses. They are talented artists and musicians. It really runs the gamut.

The people who were at Stateville and Cook County and other institutions that offer higher education programming and education programming period, when they decide to dive into those activities, they dive all the way in and they excel. They are always extraordinary students. So, I’ve got tons of examples.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You are one of DePaul’s inaugural presidential fellows. So, this year you will be working with the president and with the vice president for Institutional Diversity and Equity, creating research to address diversity and inclusion issues. Will your work during this fellowship also involve a post-prison higher education initiative?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: I hope so. I have been told that DePaul was the first university to approach Stateville Correctional Center in about 20 years to offer bona fide college courses. Up until the 80s or so, it was not unusual for people who were incarcerated to take college courses and at one point, they were eligible for Pell Grants. So, Stateville had a very lively higher ed program at one point and then after the Pell Grants were repealed and sentencing became much more punitive and budgets went askew through various reasons, the higher ed programming at Stateville and other correctional institutions across the state and the country just really kind of dried up.

And so, when the Inside-Out Program started at Stateville, I was told by the chaplain with whom we worked there that we were the first academic institution to come back that offered courses that were actually taught by current instructors as opposed to retirees or on a voluntary basis.

For the first few years, by the way, that the Inside-Out Program existed, the students were getting certificates. Inside students were getting certificates of completion, very nice, but no course credit. We now do offer course credit to our incarcerated students and, to my knowledge, we’re the only one in the region that offers full credit hours for our classes.

At this point at Stateville now, there is what I am calling a friendly battle. We’re not quite throwing elbows. We’re close. There is a lot more competition. There are many other educational institutions that are all teaching there and so now space is at a premium. We’re fighting over students. So, it’s a good battle.

So, you have many institutions here that export out our education, some of us bringing in outside students, some not. Far fewer institutions have an inbound lane for people who have taken classes while they were incarcerated, who want to continue their education. Far fewer institutions have an inbound lane at least in any kind of a formal sense. So, what I would like to do is to create or suggest or propose a policy that creates an inbound lane for people who have taken classes either at Stateville, most likely at other downstate prisons that are medium security. The challenge of Stateville is that is where people go to have very long sentences. Most people there are not getting out. Some who are getting resentencing hearings, because they are juvenile offenders in the Supreme Court, decided in 2012 or ’14, I forget when that was, that you can no longer sentence them to life without parole and many of them are going through rehearing. So, some of them will be getting out and DePaul is very dear to folks at Stateville. So, many who have aspirations, who would love to continue, these are people who have been taking classes at this point with Northwestern, North Park, Northeastern Illinois University, and many other instructors from other organizations who teach through other programs. And so, I would like to come up with some kind of proposal to open up an inbound lane for people who want to continue their studies here at DePaul.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You’ve done a lot of work around gerrymanders, specifically prison-based gerrymanders. As we head into a presidential election year, what is important for U.S. citizens to know about this topic?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: Well, first off, I would like folks to know about it because it has been hidden in plain sight for decades, really a couple of centuries. Prison gerrymandering is simply the practice of counting incarcerated people who, for the most part, cannot vote, in electoral districts.

So, it is an odd situation where their heads are counted but they have no political voice because they can’t vote and more often than not, the legislators who represent those districts do not tend to consider incarcerated people in those districts as their constituents.

That started to change but, in many cases, they kind of don’t see them. So, it is this problem that is hidden in plain sight. Prison gerrymanders don’t typically affect U.S. congressional districts and they clearly don’t affect senators because the state is the district. But they tend to affect more local elections and so what it creates is this imbalance of power with respect to constituents who were in a district where they count prisoners, incarcerated people, in a sense have more power and more access to their legislator than an adjoining district that doesn’t have incarcerated people. So, it sort of violates this concept of one person, one vote.

So, I would just like more people to even know what that is and the fact that there are some jurisdictions in Illinois that do engage in prison gerrymander. There is no real law against it. Not every jurisdiction that has a prison counts incarcerated people. Stateville, I believe, does not. But there are districts further downstate that do count incarcerated people. Representative La Shawn Ford has put forth a bill to end that practice I think at least three times at this point.

There is some support for it but so far, it has not passed and there are various debates about how one goes about ending this practice. The debates get a little heated when it comes to what would happen with funding that might be attached to an incarcerated person.

One thing that is particularly nefarious about prison-based gerrymanders is their index to the census because we redistrict every 10 years. So, if somebody has a relatively short sentence and your average sentence is actually three to five years, they go home after three to five years, they are still counted in that district for the rest of the 10-year period unless we do what they call a mid-decade redistricting plan which can happen, doesn’t happen a lot. So, that disproportionality stays throughout that decade, even if the person is no longer incarcerated or say, gets moved to another institution. They can go from Menard which is way down state, up to Stateville. They are still going to be counted in that region in Menard.

And so, this was an issue that didn’t really concern a whole lot of people. It was easier, I should say, to hide in plain sight before the war on drugs and before these really long sentencing mandates came down and before you had so many people that were incarcerated because it was affecting far fewer people.

But now that we’re in an era since the 90s where you have far more millions of people who are incarcerated, many for long terms. It is affecting way more people and given the incredible racial disproportionality of people who are incarcerated, the vast majority are African American and LatinX. You have now this racial disproportionality and so it takes on a whole different weight now than it did even thirty years ago. But the practice itself was quite old and it didn’t have a racist intent but it does now because these numbers have a racially discriminatory outcome.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, how else do you involve students in your work?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: One of the things I encourage students to do if they are really interested in the voting rights of people with a felony conviction or people who were what we call pretrial detainees, folks who were arrested in jail and who were largely there because they can’t afford to bail out. I encourage them to work with organizations like Chicago Votes who happen to be located right across the street from us here on Wabash there in Jackson and again, part of their mandate is to mobilize young people to vote, period, and they do two things.

They go to high schools and talk to high schoolers about voting and get them to register to vote and then they will bring a bus back. And we’ve heard of parade to the polls from churches? They do a parade to the polls from the high schools. So, they do that but they have also been instrumental and very central not just to the civic educational bill for people in prison, but they were also very central to the passage of state bill 2090 which mandates voting access for eligible pretrial detainees who are in jails across the state.

So, years ago, it was a custom for pretrial detainees who were at Cook County to vote. The Chicago Board of Elections and, I believe, Cook County Board of Elections would either take polling station there or provide them with absentee ballots and then come back and pick them up.

That practice dropped by the wayside for various reasons that I am not still completely sure why, but a very, very bright, promising lawyer, Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, sought to breathe life back into that practice back in 2016, just on her own with some friends. They go register people at Cook County and then bring back these absentee ballots.

Chicago Votes sort of took that over for her because they are an organizing juggernaut and they could collect volunteers with a speed that is mind blowing. So, they have sort of taken over getting volunteers to go in and register people to vote and then go in and have them vote using these absentee ballots, but setting it up as if it’s a polling station. And these are valid ballots, by the way.

And so, when Juliana Stratton, right before she started to run for Lieutenant Governor, while she was running for state senator, she initiated a bill that would mandate voter registration access and voting access to all pretrial detainees throughout the state.

So, Chicago Votes is really sort of the – taken those efforts over. So, I encourage my students to work with them and we have many DePaul students who work with them.

Recently, and this is really within the past week or so, we have agreed DePaul is entering into a collaboration with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights that is based in Washington, D.C. There is an attorney there who has sought to create redistricting workshops at various colleges across the South, mostly historically black colleges and universities, who teach students how to use mapping software to draw electoral districts, and part of this inspiration came from the story of North Carolina Central University, which was one district at one point that through many of the iterations of redistricting litigation in North Carolina, was split. One college district was split into two districts. I believe those districts have since been overturned but the very first workshop I think was actually held in North Carolina Central University.

So, he’s identified several partners, again, mostly with the historically black colleges and universities, to teach students how to use the software to draw what they think are fair and constitutional and legal districts that would best represent their interests.

Traditionally, districting has been done by legislators and in some cases where the legislators play too many games, states have setup neutral nonpartisan redistricting commissions, such as in California. I think in Iowa, they took the districting process out of the hands of legislators. I think there is a panel of judges, again, that does this nonpartisan.

What’s been happening in the past 15 years, maybe 10 years or so, is a move towards citizen redistricting and getting community organizations involved in drawing their own districts. So, this is a way of pulling students into this process. DePaul, just this past week, we have agreed to be one of the sites for these training workshops.

And so, we have scheduled a workshop to happen in late February of this coming year. They will come in and teach this software and teach how to draw a district and we would be doing this in collaboration largely with the political science department and also the geography department because they have all of this great mapping software. So, we are very excited about this, and so it is a two-part thing where folks from Lawyers’ Committee come in and teach students the basics. So, very hands-on workshops. We’ll be using the GIS computer lab.

They then will come back in 2020 after the Census. And so, for the first workshop, they are just drawing a practice district. They will then come back in 2020 and redo this with a real district, using real data from the 2020 Census and the lawyers committee then takes on the responsibility of really double checking that these districts conform and comply with the principle of one person one vote that comes out of the Fourteenth Amendment, that it complies with the Voting Rights Act, any other types of laws that govern this so that they are actually valid districts.

So, we’re extremely excited about it. So far, they have done two workshops, one at NCCU and I think the second one they did was at Fisk University. We’re very eager to do this. I think these are the first efforts to train undergraduate students how to get engaged in this process and I think it’s wonderful, so we’re looking forward to that.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It’s going to be good work.


LINDA BLAKLEY: In preparing for our conversation, I learned that you certainly are not alone in addressing this issue. Michelle Alexander, the civil rights litigator and legal scholar, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, songwriter John Legend, and even Kim Kardashian West have taken up this cause. How can any of our listeners support this work?

CHRISTINA RIVERS: Folks can either work with some of these organizations that I have mentioned or if they are too busy, donations never hurt. Organizations like Chicago Votes are running on the largess of donors, many of them small donors that give monthly donations and so they could always use more funding. A good starting point is just to talk about these things. Sort of the each one, teach one mentality.

One thing that we learned at Stateville, and then State Sen. Stratton learned this while she was campaigning, is how few people in Illinois or at least in Cook County or Chicago know about these issues. And so, we learned that the more we start to talk about these issues, everybody is really interested and then they start to tell other people about it. So, actually this law that we wrote and passed started out as a class project the first time I taught at Stateville. They have to write a legislative proposal and I say, ‘hey, you know, pretend you are writing to Santa Claus. Be ambitious. Go for broke.’

And so, two class projects wrote laws having to do with felony disenfranchisement and one went all the way and wrote a law that proposed that people be able to vote while they are incarcerated, which is allowed, by the way, in Vermont and Maine and Puerto Rico. Others were more interested in the fact that there was so little knowledge of their rights amongst themselves, amongst the incarcerated and even those on the outside.

So, they proposed a bill that would just get this word out and so that is where this bill came from, and one thing that I found very heartening was how many of our inside partners would say, ‘yeah, I was talking about this with my cell mate or in the chow line or on the yard’ or wherever they were, coworker, and it would just engender these much longer conversations and they would sort of spread this word.

Most of them did not know that their eligibility to register to vote was restored immediately upon departure from the Departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice and in some cases, they had been told exactly the opposite.

I have talked to people at Cook County Jail. I have talked to people who were there at Cook County Jail who were told – who knew they could vote – who were told by staff and other people actually no, you are ineligible.

So, there is a lot of lack of information out there not just on the part of people who are incarcerated or who have a felony conviction but on the part of just regular folks, right, like the rest of us.

I have gone to political science conferences and talked to people who didn’t – hadn’t heard of prison gerrymanders. I certainly hadn’t heard of them six or seven years ago. So, I really think the most fundamental thing we can do is just to talk about it and get it out there and after that, you know, if people are interested in working with these organizations, that would be great. Or if folks can support them, that would be great. There are many, many organizations in this city that are really about getting out to vote and I think the more we can encourage those organizations to target people with a history of involvement with the criminal legal system, the better.

I am happy to hear that that word is increasingly getting out there.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Christina, thank you for all that you are doing. I think my grandmothers would be proud of you.

CHRISTINA RIVERS: I hope mine is.

LINDA BLAKLEY: And thank you for joining me in this conversation.

CHRISTINA RIVERS: Thank you for having me once again. It’s great to have the opportunity to talk about this.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you for listening to this episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications. ​