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Early Voting in Illinois: Can We Do Better?

Elections used to happen on Election Day.

As recently as 2004, Illinois voters had to show up at a polling place in their precinct between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. on one specific Tuesday in order to vote. The only exception was that they could request a mail-in “absentee” ballot, or vote absentee at the office of their local election authority, if they swore they’d be out of the county on Election Day and unable to vote in person.

“A major reason for early voting is to encourage greater participation in the election process. People who travel for business, work long hours or are otherwise inconvenienced by the hours the polls are open on Election Day may find it easier to vote early,” reads the official statement from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia offer early voting, ranging from 22 to 45 days before Election Day. In Illinois, early voting can – and typically does – begin 40 days before Election Day at “temporary sites” set up by election authorities, usually at their office. Fifteen days out, election authorities can set up additional “permanent sites,” which may be open some or all of the days before Election Day.

Has it worked? Voter turnout in Illinois in 2004, the last election before early voting, was 62.4 percent of the voting-eligible population. In 2016, turnout was 63.1 percent

In the last 12 years, Illinois has enacted not only early voting, but also online registration, Election Day registration, expanded grace period registration during early voting, automatic voter registration, and no-questions-asked vote-by-mail absentee voting – yet the voter turnout percentage has barely budged.

“What we’re seeing is just shifts in the same people using the elections. We’re not seeing increases in turnout,” said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections.

Election administrators theorize that turnout is affected little by whether it rains or snows on Election Day – “I think voters are more hearty than you give ‘em credit for,” Allen said – and more by whether citizens are engaged in government and politics to even a small degree, or even excited by a particular candidate.

But easy access to information on how to vote is also important for getting voters to the polls, and it’s not clear that voters are getting it. Calmetta Coleman, vice president of external affairs for the Chicago Urban League, says she conducted a discussion with non-voters in May. “They don’t know how,” she said. “It’s easy to say it’s your civic duty, you should go and find out, but it’s not really taught.”

While there are many reasons people don’t vote, access to accurate information shouldn’t be one of them. And there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding early voting in Illinois.

Early voting in Illinois can be confusing.

When can I vote? Early voting starts in selected locations on September 27 and other locations on October 22. This can lead to conflicting information from election authorities and confusion for voters. For example, in Lake County, the state’s third most populous county, the Clerk’s website incorrectly states that early voting starts 15 days before an election (Oct. 22 this year), not 40 days before (Sept. 27). Only by clicking through to a map can a voter find that early voting is available on Sept. 27 at the County Clerk’s office in Waukegan. Such errors can lead to a cascade of misinformation, as private groups promoting early voting may provide the wrong information to voters.

  • The Cook County Clerk’s website advertises “traditional early voting” Oct. 22-Nov. 5 at multiple locations around the Cook County suburbs. It then mentions that early voting started Sept. 27 and is ongoing at the County Clerk’s downtown office. This language may confuse voters about what’s happening now (since Sept. 27) and what’s starting Oct. 22.
  • The Illinois early voting statute only specifies the hours that “permanent” early voting sites must be open 15 days before Election Day. Meanwhile, it is up to individual election authorities to set the hours for voting at “temporary” sites beginning 40 days before the election.

Where can I vote? City and suburban voters from the same county may have to vote in different places, potentially leading to confusion about where early voters can cast their ballots. 

  • Illinois has five city election authorities in cities that are also their county’s seat. In Bloomington, Chicago, Danville, Galesburg and Rockford, city residents vote in one place, while residents of the rest of the county vote someplace else, perhaps a few blocks away. The remedy when voters show up at the wrong place is to send them to the right one. “It’s really not a big deal,” said Lisa M. Watson, executive director of the Galesburg Board of Elections. But it can cause frustration with the system, and “some people may not have time to go to a different polling place,” said Hon. Susan Garrett, chairman of Reform for Illinois.

Can I vote or not? There have been other examples of misleading communications from election authorities. Until a few days ago, the following statement appeared on the Cook County Clerk’s website: “While some calendars suggest that the Early Voting period in Illinois may begin as early as September 27, ballots will not be available by then. We anticipate ballots being available by the start of the ‘grace period’ or October 11 – by which time most challenges seeking to remove candidates from the ballot should have been decided and we have been able to prepare voting equipment. People hoping to vote early at the Cook County Clerk’s office between October 11 and November 5 should be able to do so.”

In fact, there are no outstanding challenges, early voting has been under way since Sept. 27, and this statement was “holdover language” that was published in error and has since been removed, said Noah Praetz, director of elections for the Cook County Clerk. In the meantime, however, it likely deterred some early voters.

Which election is this, anyway? Next year, municipal elections are coming up, with a primary in February and a runoff in April. The Chicago Tribune reported that “to provide voters with a 40-day window before next year’s April 2 municipal runoff, early voting would have to begin before the Feb. 26 municipal election.” While fixing that will likely require legislative action, it is one more confounding factor in an already confusing system.

These snags are surely not, by themselves, big reasons that voter turnout is less than it could be, but they represent the type of bureaucratic entanglements that cumulatively turn off potential voters. While we in the good government community try to put our fingers on the big reasons why people don’t vote, we ask election authorities to eliminate the small ones.

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