Nearly 20 years ago as a young mother living on the south side of Chicago, Cynae Derose, a board member at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, remembers how difficult it could be to cast a ballot on Election Day.
“It wasn’t easy securing childcare and getting time-off from work in order to go vote, only to wait in a long line just to enter my polling place,” she recalls.
Under COVID-19, voter safety concerns have amplified and compounded many of these barriers. As some polling places are consolidated or moved and changes to the U.S. Postal Service create confusion around mail-in ballots, uncertainty and misinformation are threatening to disenfranchise voters.
"Those in the Black community, who are at a higher risk of experiencing negative health outcomes from COVID-19, face greater challenges due to long lines and under-resourced polling precincts, creating additional physical barriers to vote," Derose said.
According to Senior Counsel Ami Gandhi from Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, these systemic voting barriers arose from decades of discrimination at the voting booth and continue to create racial disparities in voter access across Illinois.
“Americans fought and died for the right to vote, precisely because it is a powerful tool that we have to choose who will govern us,” said Gandhi.
Here’s how you can make sure that your vote is counted in this election.
You have choices! You can still register to vote in Illinois, and you can even register to vote in person on Election Day. On Election Day, most voters can register at their own polling place, but if you live in a county with a population under 100,000 people, you might have to go to your county election office.
To register in person, you'll need two forms of ID, one of which shows your current address. Both IDs need to show your full, legal name, but do not need to have your photo. Voters who are homeless can use a piece of mail addressed to them in order to register to vote. If you have a past criminal record, you are still eligible to vote and you can also use online or Election Day Registration.
If you want to vote by mail, ballots must be requested by October 29 and be postmarked by November 3. You can also drop off your Vote by Mail ballot at your local election authority or at a secure drop box through Election Day. If you are voting in Chicago, that information is available here.
"Understanding our voting rights is critical to protect the Black community so we can vote with confidence this election season," Derose said.
You can still vote in person. If you requested a vote-by-mail ballot but you don’t receive it, you can show up in-person, sign an affidavit saying you never received a ballot, and vote on a regular ballot. Even if you change your mind and want to vote in person after applying for a vote-by-mail ballot, you can simply take your ballot to your polling place and surrender it to the poll workers. Then, you’ll be able to cast a regular ballot in person. Provisional ballots should be a last resort.
You have the right to ask questions. All voters, and especially new voters, have questions about the process this year. You have the right to be safe and free from intimidation when voting, and you should never get in trouble for asking questions about how to vote. You can ask your pollworker (also called an “election judge”) if you’re not sure about something, or call the non-partisan Election Protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE, run locally by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee. They are here to answer your questions and help you feel prepared going into this election.
“Often, what seems like a minor bureaucratic issue for some people - like a pollworker who incorrectly asks registered voters for a photo ID - can mean the difference between someone voting or skipping this election, particularly for low-income folks and people of color,” said Gandhi. “Don’t let the confusion and misinformation keep you from exercising your right to vote.”
If you need additional information please visit Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. And make sure you have a plan to vote in the Nov. 3 election.
Ami Gandhi is Senior Council for the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Cynae Derose is a board member at Planned Parenthood of Illinois.