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Since 2020, Illinois has gone further than almost any other state to expand access to voting for both the overall population and some of the state’s most marginalized people.

The state expanded early voting hours, made Election Day a state holiday and set a higher bar for local election officials to reject absentee ballots just before the 2020 presidential election. 

Since then, the Democratic-controlled legislature and Gov. JB Pritzker have given local officials the flexibility to offer curbside voting and to accept mail-in ballots that lack sufficient postage.

They’ve also added assistive technologies for voters with disabilities and have expanded voting access for people incarcerated awaiting trial and those with felony convictions upon their release from prison, even if they’re on parole or probation.  

Registering to vote, mail ballots can be automatic

Illinois residents can register to vote and update their registrations online, by mail, or in person. Registration in person can happen up until and on Election Day.

Registering voters and having their information cross-checked has been made reasonably easy due to the passage of the state’s Automatic Voter Registration law. It automatically updates voters’ addresses and contact information each time they interact with any state government agency unless a resident opts out of having this done.

Since its passage in August 2017, the AVR has led to a 37% increase in voter registration applications or an additional 111,000 voter applications every year, according to the Illinois PIRG.

This year, a new law for the first time also gives voters the option to sign up for voting by mail permanently. Voters do not need an excuse to vote by mail in Illinois — anyone who is registered to vote can do so. 

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Vote-by-mail ballots for the November elections were sent out starting Sept. 29 –– the first day of the state’s early voting period — and need to be postmarked by the day of the election and received by mail within 14 days after. 

Ballots can also be placed in drop boxes, which are also now a permanent feature in the state, up until the time polls close on Election Day.

The state also provides an accessible vote-by-mail option that allows blind, deafblind, and voters with other disabilities to vote without having to rely on someone else for assistance and — by doing so — ensuring that their vote is private.

Polling place accessibility

With more voters choosing to mail in their ballots and with the success of early voting, cities including Chicago have said they will be making changes to some Election Day polling sites.

It comes at a time dangerously close to the November midterm elections, as any change in polling place locations can cause confusion that might lead to some people not voting. But the Chicago Board of Elections has said in news reports that officials would mail that information to voters to minimize problems.

The city expects to save as much as $2 million in supply costs and salaries for election workers. The Board of Elections has vowed to spend some of that money on ensuring polling places are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Disenfranchisement behind bars

In 2020, more than 39,000 Illinois residents were prohibited from voting due to incarceration on felony convictions. About 55% of voters disenfranchised because of imprisonment were Black, even though Black residents represent less than 15% of the state’s population.

Voting rights are automatically restored after release from prison in Illinois, but the formerly incarcerated must re-register. 

A new state law requires the Illinois Department of Corrections to educate inmates about their right to vote upon release. It also adds the Department of Corrections to the state’s automatic voter registration program to share information about eligibility with state election administrators.

Across the country, as many as 500,000 people who are eligible to vote but are in jail awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence are not given the opportunity to vote. Illinois started requiring jails to provide pretrial inmates with the ability to vote in 2020. A polling place set up in the Cook County jail has been celebrated as one of the only voting locations like it in the country.

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Karen Juanita Carrillo is a Brooklyn, New York-based author and a frequent speaker on African American...