White was born in Alton, Illinois. He attended Alabama State University, where he played baseball and basketball, and he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1957. He served in the 101st Airborne Division and 75th Ranger Regiment of the United States Army from 1957–1959. In May 1995, White was inducted into the Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame. He was an all-city baseball and basketball player at Chicago's Waller High School (now Lincoln Park High School) and was inducted into the Chicago Public League Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in June 1995. In 1999, he was inducted into the Alabama State University Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1959, White founded the Jesse White Tumbling Team to serve as a positive alternative for children residing in the Chicago area. Since its inception, more than 10,700 young men and women have performed with the team.
White served as a paratrooper in the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division and as a member of the Illinois National Guard. He played minor league professional baseball with the Chicago Cubs organization, which was followed by a 33-year career with the Chicago Public Schools system as a teacher and administrator.
White became a political protégé of longtime Cook County Board President and 42nd Ward Democratic Committeeman George Dunne. White was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1974 and served for 16 years. He was elected Recorder of Deeds of Cook County, Illinois, in 1992 and re-elected in 1996. White was elected Secretary of State of Illinois in 1998, was re-elected in 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018. In recent years he has also served as Democratic Committeeman of Chicago's 27th Ward.
As Secretary of State
First elected to Secretary of State of Illinois in 1998, White was re-elected in 2002 by winning all 102 counties and garnering more than 2.3 million votes, the largest vote total by any candidate for Illinois statewide office in a quarter of a century. In 2006, White was re-elected to a third term, having received 63 percent of the vote statewide. White was elected to a fourth term in 2010, the leading vote-getter in the entire state.
White has been an advocate on traffic safety issues. In 2007, he initiated teen driver safety legislation giving Illinois one of the top-ranked graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs in the country. In the first full year of the new law, teen fatal crashes in Illinois dropped by over 40 percent.
White has also worked to crack down on DUI. He partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) on key DUI legislation. Effective January 1, 2009, the new law requires all first-time DUI offenders who wish to obtain driving relief to install a breath alcohol ignition interlock device (BAIID) on their vehicles. MADD called this one of the most important pieces of DUI legislation passed in Illinois in several years.
Since taking office White has worked to improve truck safety and the CDL licensing process. In his first year in office, White initiated a comprehensive highway safety package to tighten up the rules and regulations of the CDL licensing process. Most recently, White implemented a key policy change beginning May 1, 2008 in which out-of-state Commercial driver's license holders moving to Illinois must take and pass the written and road tests before they are issued an Illinois CDL. Illinois was the first state in the nation to require these tests for licensed CDL holders moving from another state. The policy change has received praise from law enforcement and trucking industry representatives.
White has improved customer services through streamlined operations and the innovative use of technology. This has resulted in shorter than ever wait times at driver licensing facilities as more customers take advantage of new, technology-based transactions that the office has developed to better serve the public. In 2006, Internet transactions accounted for over $41 million. In 2008, these transactions accounted for over $73 million.
White continues to be an advocate for organ and tissue donation. He initiated legislation creating the First Person Consent Organ/Tissue Donor Registry, which makes a person's decision to donate legally binding. Since 2006, more than 5 million people have signed up for the registry.
In 1999, White inherited an office under a cloud of corruption from George H. Ryan. White immediately pledged to restore integrity and eliminate all forms of institutionalized corruption and wrongdoing. Some key efforts included: establishing a code of conduct for employees; setting strict fundraising policies that prohibit employee contributions; hiring Jim Burns, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, as Inspector General and strengthened the Inspector General's office; and initiated legislation to make the position of Inspector General permanent with broad powers to root out corruption.
The Secretary of State's office administers library grants throughout the state. In 2010, White re-directed federal funds from the Illinois State Library so that local libraries throughout Illinois could maintain a revenue flow from the state despite the state's fiscal crisis.
Senate appointment of Roland Burris
In January 2009, White gained national attention for his decision to not certify Roland Burris's nomination to the United States Senate following corruption charges against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. White steadfastly refused to co-sign a certificate of appointment for any appointee named by the governor, Blagojevich, who was arrested in part for trying to sell this very same senate seat. Burris then filed a lawsuit against White with the Illinois Supreme Court to compel him to certify the appointment as part of his routine administrative duties.
On January 9, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that White did not have to sign his name to any appointment made by Governor Rod Blagojevich. The Court further ruled that White had fulfilled his legal obligations regarding the appointment of Burris to the U.S. Senate by registering the appointment in accordance with state law. The document registered did not include White's signature or the State Seal. On January 12, the U.S. Senate officially seated Burris as Illinois’ junior senator.