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Your Guide to Voting in Illinois

Everything you need to know about local election deadlines, what the pandemic has changed and casting your ballot so it counts.

Voters cast ballots at a Chicago early voting site. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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The 2020 election is underway, and if you’re like us, you’ve got questions.

We have a newsletter, ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy, written by Cynthia Gordy Giwa that aims to answer them.

With the help of ProPublica reporters, Cynthia focuses on your representatives in Congress (and what it is they do), the candidates who want to represent you in Congress, political campaigns, money in politics and the sometimes-convoluted business of voting. One thing she doesn’t cover? The presidential election. We figure you get plenty of news about that already — some of it even from ProPublica.

We pulled out some of the voting information she’s gathered about Illinois. We hope it’s useful to you. And if you want personalized updates about voting access, political ads, online disinformation, campaign cash flows and Congress, sign up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.

Let’s Start With a Question: Are You Registered to Vote?

Even if you’re pretty sure you are, take a moment to get 100% certain.

Sometimes, election officials clean up their voter rolls to remove inactive voters and those who may have died or moved. These efforts, unfortunately, sometimes mean that active registered voters are swept from the rolls without their knowledge.

Take a moment now to check your status. Vote411.org, a clearinghouse of election-related information from the League of Women Voters, has a handy look-up tool that lets you verify your voter registration in seconds.

If you’re not, or if you need to update your information, there’s still time — but some deadlines are approaching soon. In Illinois, the deadline to register online is Oct. 18 (the mail-in deadline passed this week). You can register in person through Election Day (that’s Nov. 3 for those of you keeping track). Get all the forms and facts you need here.

Now, Let’s Get You Ready for Voting During a Pandemic.

First, I want you to breathe. (But from behind a mask, 6 feet away from others, if you’re out in these streets!)

COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed how people vote. In the rush to respond swiftly to the pandemic, most states have changed something about their voting processes. Your polling place may be different, and you may have to follow safety protocols. If you vote by mail, you’ll want to send in or drop off your ballot earlier than you normally would. (We recommend sending it as soon as possible.)

But chances are it won’t significantly change your ability to vote and have your vote count.

Every county has at least a couple of options for voting — a combo of in-person voting on Election Day and an extended period for early voting, for example. Or expanded access to voting by mail and casting a ballot in person. That will be handled differently depending on where you live because of our patchwork voting system. Illinois has more than 100 local election authorities; nationally, the U.S. has more than 10,000 voting jurisdictions that all run elections in different ways.

The more choices that are offered to voters, the more you’re able to choose the option most appropriate for your needs.

In-Person Voting

Even as many states have expanded the ability to vote by mail, a lot of people prefer to do the job in person. Some voters may require an interpreter to help them with their ballot. Many people of color, particularly African Americans, are wary about voting any way other than an in-person system that allows them to see their ballot physically being cast. Some states make it challenging to vote any other way.

Do you know where your polling place is?

It may not be where you voted last time. Most people vote at places like private businesses, schools or community centers — in 2018, Mick Dumke wrote about homes in Chicago’s 13th Ward that were used as polling sites — that are not required to be polling places. The owners of some of these buildings aren’t crazy about opening up to the public amid a pandemic, and some have opted out for this election.

County election officials have been scrambling to find new polling sites, and they’re coming up with creative solutions. Maybe you’ve heard about the arenas and stadiums that will be used as voting centers across the country.

It means that for some of you, your polling site won’t be sorted out until a couple weeks before Election Day. Check out the status of where you’re supposed to vote and remember to double-check closer to voting time.

What are you supposed to bring with you?

Illinois is considered a no-document-required-to-vote state, which means you don’t have to show any ID. Unless you’re a first-time voter. Then you do. 🙃

Can you vote early or just on Election Day?

In Illinois, early voting is already underway and ends Nov. 2. Your local election official’s website has more details about the rules in your area. If you’re able to vote early and are confident in your choices, consider casting your ballot as soon as possible.

For one thing, if you go to your polling place and there’s a long line, you can try coming back the next early voting day. But if you put it off until Nov. 3, then you’ll have no choice but to wait it out. In addition, other voters in your county might not be able to take advantage of early voting options and will have to wait until Election Day, so voting early helps them cast their ballot safely — and eases the Election Day crush on our poll workers.

Voting by Mail

Despite President Donald Trump’s claims that mail-in voting leads to widespread voter fraud, there’s no evidence of this. Several states have moved to expand access to mail-in voting (sometimes also called absentee voting). In Illinois, all eligible voters have the option to vote by mail.

The Illinois State Board of Elections has more info on how to get your ballot. Since your request must be received by Oct. 29, do it now. Election offices are slammed in the weeks before Election Day. And the sooner you request and receive your ballot, the sooner you can send it back.

Will my mail-in ballot be counted correctly?

Some states shifted gradually into their vote-by-mail systems, with major investments put toward training, equipment, standardized envelopes and tracking mechanisms to ensure that all goes smoothly.

Illinois isn’t one of them. But it’s not in the worst shape either. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution think tank, Illinois has a readiness grade of B, with a score of 14/22.

In all states, however, voting by mail involves a ballot return deadline. In Illinois, ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received within 14 days — but the U.S. Postal Service recommends that voters mail their ballot at least one week before the due date to allow for disruptions like severe weather or other unforeseen circumstances.

In fact, we’re already seeing delays in mail delivery in light of a few factors: the nearly 10,000 postal workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 (according to the official USPS count); new cost-cutting measures including the elimination of late or extra delivery trips from processing and distribution centers; and the recent removal of hundreds of letter processing machines from postal facilities.

All that said ... if you vote by mail, we recommend mailing your ballot in as soon as possible or no later than two weeks before Election Day.

If you want to bypass the mail process entirely, your county may have ballot drop-off boxes — a secure, time-tested way to return your ballot. You can find more information on the Board of Elections website, and the Chicago Tribune put together a handy map.

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by all this information — not to mention that the details regarding voting where you live may still be subject to change over the coming weeks — the League of Women Voters has got you covered. Its Vote411.org portal will be kept up to date, in English and en Español.

To Recap:

  • Clap it up for yourself for getting prepared to vote! 👏👏👏

Homework and Additional Reading

Our patchwork voting system isn’t just confusing for you, the voter. It also makes it hard to keep track of how well our elections are actually being run.

Electionland, a coalition of hundreds of newsrooms around the country, is working to change this. Its reporters monitor problems that can stop voters from casting their ballots, like changed voting locations, overwhelmed vote-by-mail systems, election disinformation, broken machines and hacking. Led by ProPublica, Electionland uses data and technology to track problems, in real time, at every stage of the voting process.

We’re inviting you to help us monitor the 2020 election. If you had problems completing any of the steps in this guide, we want to hear about it.

From now through Election Day, you can tell us about voting problems in your area. In 2016, nearly 4,000 voters reported problems they experienced or saw to Electionland, from names incorrectly missing from the voter rolls to shady information shared online. We’re standing by again this year to hear from you!

Check out a few of Electionland’s latest stories:


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