PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Saturday morning, at 10 a.m., 67-year-old Nathaniel Jenkins was grinning while pacing back and forth in the middle of the Peoria County Election Commission.
This was because the veteran was about to cast an election vote for the first time in the nearly seven decades he’s been alive.
Jenkins said the reason he’s never voted before was because there wasn’t much importance placed on the matter when he was in college in the early 1970s and he also went into the military, and then the army, shortly after.
“There were military things going on where my focus was just trying to survive day to day,” Jenkins said. “The other thing was I was incarcerated. Incarcerated for eight years.”
Jenkins said he was incarcerated in Virginia sometime in the late 90s and released from prison around the year 2005 where he later moved to Illinois. He said this was when the idea of voting became important to him because he saw Barack Obama running for president in 2008.
“I really wanted to vote for Obama and it hurt my heart that I couldn’t,” Jenkins said.
He said he wasn’t able to vote in the 2008 general election because his parole officer told him he couldn’t until his probation period ended in 2019, despite living in Illinois.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Illinois is one of 16 states where voting rights are automatically returned to a felon once they’re released from prison, regardless of parole or probation. Jenkins said he wasn’t told this piece of information.
Helen King helps with voter registration in Peoria, including registering new voters. She said she went to Jenkins’ senior living home, heard his story and told him he was eligible to vote.
“You only know what you know and he’s 67 years old and this is his first time voting,” King said. “I’m so proud of that, I really am.”
Jenkins also said being able to cast his vote makes him feel more like an American than ever before.
“I am very proud to be able to vote,” Jenkins said. “It makes me feel better. It makes me feel part of the country.”