Voting in the statewide general election next month should be easier for Illinois residents, thanks to several recent changes in state laws aimed at lowering longtime barriers to voter registration and access to the ballot box.
For the first time, individuals who are not registered to vote will be able to register and immediately cast a ballot as late as Election Day on November 4. Previously, the so-called “grace period” for voter registration had been cut off three days before an election.
The extended grace period is part of a pilot program, passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn last summer, allowing last-minute registration and giving registered voters more time to update their addresses.
“That is a significant change,” said Brian Gladstein, director of programs and strategy for Common Cause Illinois, an advocacy organization whose mission includes improving voter registration methods and overall participation in the election process.
“It definitely helps get disenfranchised voters to the polls,” Gladstein said, adding that the program would also capture “a good amount of people who are registered and try to vote on Election Day but can’t…because there was a mistake” either by the person trying to vote or the election officials who manage the voter rolls.
As they prepare for the changes, county clerks and other election authorities are warning that not all polling places will have the capacity for registering or filing a change of address form on Election Day. Only certain voting centers are designated for this function and the number of these sites will vary, in part, depending on a county’s population. Chicago, for example, will have five locations and suburban Cook County will have 18 sites.
“We’re concerned that people will think, ‘Well, I’m not registered but I want to vote, I’ll just go to my polling place,’” said Jim Tenuto, assistant executive director at the Illinois State Board of Elections, the state agency that oversees the administration of election laws. “They can register and they can vote, but they will have to go to certain locations.”
Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said that same-day registration is “a big undertaking.”
“We want to make sure that … we have the safeguards in place to make sure everyone who is eligible is able to vote but also that anyone who is ineligible cannot game the system,” he said.
To find a voting center that has Election Day registration, residents should contact or check the website of their local election authority. (Illinois has 110 election authorities, most of which are county clerks. Click here to find your election authority, as well as its website and contact information.)
Also among the changes this year for Illinois voters:
- Early voting: Registered voters wishing to cast their vote ahead of Election Day will have an extra day to do so with early voting now running from Oct. 20 to Nov. 2. In Cook County, all of the polling sites designated for early voting will stay open longer from Oct. 27-31, the final week before the election. Other early voting locations throughout the state may have longer hours as well. Polling places must be open a minimum of 14 hours during the last weekend before the election.
- Young voters: Students attending certain public universities will now be allowed to cast absentee ballots at voting sites on campus. Beginning in 2014, 17-year-olds who turn 18 by Nov. 4 were eligible to register and vote in the recent primary election.
- Online registration: Also new this year, Illinois residents with a driver’s license or state identification card can register to vote online at the Illinois State Board of Elections’ website during the regular registration period, which runs year-round except for the 27 days before an election and the two days following an election, or one day after in Chicago. Registered voters who need to update their address can also use the online system during the same time frame. (For the upcoming election, the deadline for regular registration was Oct. 7.)
“All of those avenues make it easier for people to vote,” Tenuto said. “I think it’ll be interesting to see how it generates turnout in the future.”
According to Common Cause, voter turnout in Illinois could increase by more than 215,000 and turnout among minority voters could jump by more than 150,000 because of the same-day registration initiative.
Voting rights advocates describe Illinois’ latest reforms as a positive step forward but also point out that there is room for improvement to make voting easier and more efficient.
Compared to other states, Illinois ranks “about in the middle of the curve,” said DeNora Getachew, campaign manager and legislative counselor at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute at New York University that also focuses on improving voter turnout and access.
In 2012, for example, Illinois ranked 27th in the nation in registering voters and only 62 percent of those registered actually cast ballots, according to the Brennan Center.
“Taking steps to modernize registration would make the ballot more free, fair and accessible to all Illinois voters,” Getachew said.
Illinois could make its system more modern by offering electronic registration at government agencies and by making registration portable so that when people move, their voting information is updated automatically, according to Getachew.
Advocates also say that same-day registration should be made permanent and available at all polling locations. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but some view the pilot program as a sign of what’s to come.
“This is a test run, but at some point in the future we expect, or suspect, that based on the legislation that’s been introduced over the years that there is going to be another effort to require same-day registration at all locations,” Allen said.
Some groups, however, are pushing for another alternative: the state could get rid of the voter registration process entirely.
“Voter registration shouldn’t exist,” said Rebecca Reynolds, executive director of Chicago Votes, an organization that strives to engage younger voters. “It’s byzantine and it’s costly. The truth is the state has the information as to where people live and whether they are citizens and eligible.”
If registration is automatic, the state can increase efficiency and save money, on top of increasing voter turnout, Reynolds said.
“It’s fiscally the right thing to do and ethically the right thing to do to make sure there are no barriers to the democratic process,” she said.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.