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Published — October 23, 2020

Steady progress on voting rights in Illinois, but challenges remain

An array of steps have been taken to ensure voting rights in the state, but implementation issues and uneven execution have hampered the efforts.

Introduction

Illinois, dominated by Democrats in the legislature in recent years, has among the most open voting access laws in the country. It allows no-excuse mail-in voting and accepts late-arriving ballots for up to two weeks — so long as they’re postmarked by Election Day.

In June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker also signed into law an emergency measure in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing curbside voting and expanding early voting hours. The law also designated Election Day as a state holiday and mandated local election boards to automatically send absentee ballot applications to recent voters.

“In the face of a pandemic, massive economic upheaval and renewed calls for racial justice, it’s more important than ever that Illinoisans can hold accountable a truly representative and transparent government — and that means ensuring all eligible residents can wield their right to vote in a way that doesn’t risk their personal health,” Pritzker said in a statement after signing the measure.

Still, the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, critiqued Illinois’ approach to mail-in voting, pointing out that the state sends ballot applications, rather than ballots, to eligible voters. Ten states are skipping applications and mailing ballots instead.

Here’s a look at some other barriers to voting rights and access in the Prairie State:

Automatic voter registration

In 2017, the legislature unanimously passed a measure that automatically registers eligible voters when they interact with any state agency — unless they opt out. The move was hailed by voting rights groups.

Three years later, the automatic voter registration system is in a state of disarray following a series of missteps. In January, the Illinois Secretary of State’s office admitted that an error in the system mistakenly added hundreds of noncitizens to the voter rolls after they applied for a drivers’ license. Another glitch forwarded the information on thousands of 16-year-olds to the Illinois State Board of Elections, which had to abort the registration process for the underaged teens. Then it came to light that more than 1,100 people were kept out of the voter rolls after being “erroneously categorized” as opting out of registration.

Weeks later, a coalition of advocacy groups sued Secretary of State Jesse White, a Democrat, and the state election board, saying they violated federal and state voting rights laws by botching the rollout of the system.

The groups alleged that state agencies have repeatedly failed to correct their mistakes, “while Illinois citizens’ fundamental right of access to the ballot is trampled upon.”

The lawsuit, filed in March in federal court, is still pending.

Accessibility challenges

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has estimated that nearly 60% of polling locations in the country are inaccessible in some way.

The potential for disenfranchisement is huge in Illinois: According to new projections from researchers at Rutgers University, some 1.3 million eligible voters in the state have a disability. That’s more than 14% of the electorate.

In addition to allowing no-excuse mail-in voting, Illinois now has an accessible online system, set up by the state election board this summer, that gives voters with disabilities an option to fill out their ballots electronically at home.

But the system won’t be available throughout the state for the Nov. 3 election. That’s because it was left up to some 100 local election boards to decide whether to adopt it, and only about half have done so.

“We’re disappointed that not every election authority jumped on it,” said Barry Taylor, vice president of the civil rights team at Equip for Equality, a disability rights group based in Chicago. “But this is an opportunity to build upon. This will be something that the state board does going forward, and we’ll have more time to do some direct advocacy work with election authorities that didn’t sign on.”

Voting behind bars

In March, the Cook County Jail in Chicago became one of the first in the nation to operate as a jail polling station — following a law passed last year that requires jails in the state to provide an opportunity for pretrial inmates to vote.

More than a third of the Cook County Jail’s inmates voted in the March primary, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, which ran the jail’s polling places along with the county clerk’s and sheriff’s offices.

But the Cook County Jail is the only pretrial detention facility in Illinois that serves as a polling station this year. The law allows only those jails located in counties with more than 3 million people to do so — meaning it applies to no other counties in the state.

This keeps in-person voting out of reach for a sizable portion of the jail population in the state — where, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, about 23,000 inmates are locked up in local pretrial detention facilities. On average, the Cook County Jail’s inmates account for only about 9,000 of them — or as few as 4,200 due to population-control measures taken in response to COVID-19.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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