Illustration by Mell Montezuma

How to Vote in Chicago

Here’s what you need to know about voting in a pandemic

We often think of voting as a sacred democratic ritual—you go to the polls on Election Day, cast your ballot, and put an “I Voted” sticker on the sleeve of your jacket to indicate that you did your civic duty. 

Not this year. Amid a global pandemic, record levels of mail-in voting ballot applications, and funding cuts to the United States Postal Service, this election will be unlike any that have come before.

In June, Illinois passed emergency legislation to expand voter access during COVID-19, and as a result, many voting rules have changed. So whether you are a first-time voter or a veteran voter, the voting process can be confusing this year. This guide is designed to help you navigate your available voting options and address any questions or concerns you may have about making sure your vote counts. 

However, if there is one universal piece of advice from all the experts the Weekly spoke to, it is this: make a plan to vote ahead of time, and then vote as early as possible.

Who is on the ballot for this election cycle?

Aside from the presidential election, there are several other important elections happening on November 3 in Chicago. On the federal level, the next President, one U.S. Senate seat, and seven U.S. House of Representatives seats are up for election. At the state level, all Illinois state representatives, some state senators in specific districts, and the state’s attorney are up for election. There are also several Illinois Supreme and Appellate Court judicial races and judges up for retention. In Cook County, the clerk of the Circuit Court and the commissioner of the Board of Review, 1st District,  are up for election, as well as several Cook County Circuit and Subcircuit judges. There are also three Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioners up for election.

Voters will also decide on the Fair Tax Amendment, a ballot measure that will change the state income tax system from a flat tax to a graduated tax, and three other citywide, non-binding, referenda. 

“I would really emphasize some of the downballot races happening in our local communities,” said Katrina Phidd, a communications associate at Chicago Votes. “These are the races where you might see more of an impact on our communities and day to day lives.” You can see a sample ballot and see where candidates stand on key issues at ballotready.org and research judicial candidates using the Injustice Watch Judicial Voting Guide, included in our October 14 print issue.

First things first, are you registered to vote?

Check the Illinois Online Voter Registration site (ova.elections.il.gov) by October 18 to see if you are registered to vote. You will need either an Illinois driver’s license or state ID. 

You have the right to vote, but will need to register (or re-register) if:

  • You are eighteen or older and this is your first time voting
  • You have moved in the past year
  • You have a felony on your record, or have been released from incarceration

If you miss the October 18 deadline for online registration, you have until November 2 to register at a designated early voting location, although you should be prepared to cast your ballot right after you register. Remember to bring two forms of ID. As a last resort, you can do same-day registration on Election Day, but only at the polling location in your precinct.

“We are working daily to turn around all the registrations we’re getting,” said Jonathan Swain, commissioner at the Chicago Board of Elections. He said it will take “a couple of days, if that” to confirm your registration. 

Should I vote by mail?

All eligible voters can vote by mail: you do not need an excuse or reason to vote by mail in Illinois. In fact, voting by mail is encouraged this election. You can prevent COVID-19 exposure, vote from the comfort of your own home, and prevent congestion at polling places.

However, if you chose to vote by mail, you need to know there are multiple steps to the process and that you should plan ahead, according to Ami Gandhi, senior counsel at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. 

The first step is to apply to vote by mail. If you have voted in Illinois in the last two years, you should have received an application to vote by mail. If you haven’t, you can either apply online at chicagoelections.gov, or return your application by mail through October 29, although it is recommended you do so much earlier, ideally by mid-October. If you submit an email address with your application, you should receive updates from the Chicago Board of Elections notifying when your application has been received and processed.

The Board of Elections has been sending out mail-in ballots to registered voters on a rolling basis since September 24. Once you receive your ballot in the mail— it should take no longer than one or two days after you apply, according to Swain—fill out your ballot and send it back as soon as possible, no need to pay for postage. WBEZ has an easy to use tool on their website (wbez.org) that takes you step-by-step through the vote by mail process.

It is highly recommended that you do not wait until October 29 to submit your ballot by mail. Chicago Board of Elections Chair Marisel Hernandez suggests you send out your mail-in ballot by October 14, which means you should apply for your ballot a few days before then at the latest. “We don’t see how a person can receive it, fill it out, and return it by that time” if they apply any later, Hernandez told CBS Chicago. “We urge everyone to apply for a vote by mail ballot as soon as possible.” 

Can my mail-in ballot get rejected? What do I do if it does?

Be sure to follow the instructions closely to ensure that your ballot is not rejected. Even the smallest of errors could cause a rejection. In the Illinois presidential primaries this spring, there were almost 12,000 vote-by-mail ballots that were rejected. One of the most common reasons a ballot is rejected is either because the voter did not sign their ballot or they submitted a signature that does not match the one on record, according to Swain.

Make sure that you sign both your ballot and the ballot envelope with a signature you have previously used with election authorities. They will compare your signature with what they have on file to make sure it matches. If you think your signature has changed, you can update it with the Board of Elections online. 

You will be notified by mail within two days if your ballot is rejected. If so, you have up to fourteen days after election day to resolve the issue with the Board of Elections.

When should I mail my ballot to make sure it’s counted in time?

Legally, as long as your ballot is postmarked (meaning it is stamped with an official marked date by the postal service upon receiving it in their system) by November 3 and election authorities receive it by November 17, it should count. However, it is realistic to be concerned about potential post office delays this year. The USPS sent letters to forty-six states, Illinois included, that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast will arrive in time to be counted

“If you get your ballot right away, and you fill it out right away, you’re probably safe to mail it back in the first two weeks of October,” said Julia Kline, deputy voter registrar for the Illinois Board of Elections and an organizer with Neighbors Who Vote. 

If you are planning to submit your ballot after October 14, Kline recommends you drop it off in-person at any one of fifty ballot drop box locations across the city—addresses and hours can be found at the CBEC website. There will be a drop box at every early voting site beginning October 14. The Board of Elections is also planning to open up additional drop box locations, according to Swain. 

Using ballot drop boxes is the surest way you can make sure your ballot is counted in time. Drop boxes are emptied every night, stamped upon receipt, and processed within thirty-six hours (although your ballot will not be counted until election night). If you provide an email address, Kline said the Board of Elections will send you email updates so you can track your ballot, just like you would track a package on its delivery route.

Can the Board of Elections handle the influx of mail-in ballots this year?

Officials are expecting a massive increase in mail-in ballots this year, especially after the March primaries broke the record for the most mail-in-ballot applications since the 1944 election during World War II. In the March primaries, there were 118,000 applications; as of October 2, there have been 458,579. The Board of Elections is prepared, though. “We’ve been preparing for the increase in mail-in ballots since the primary, [and] we’ve procured extra equipment for processing…we believe we’ll be able to process all the ballots in due time,” Swain said. He also noted that they will likely be processing ballots postmarked by election day, up to fourteen days after the election.

Is voting in person safe?

The Illinois Department of Public Health has published COVID-19 guidelines for polling places on the CDPH website (dph.illinois.gov), which include guidelines around social distancing and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). If you choose to vote in person, the most important advice from experts is to take advantage of early voting and not to wait until Election Day.

With early voting, there are often fewer people and you can go to any of the fifty early voting locations in Chicago. You are also more likely to get your questions answered by election judges in a less rushed manner. “We sometimes hear from community members with limited English proficiency that they can take more time to get the assistance they need during early voting,” said Gandhi. 

The Loop Super Site has been open for early voting since October 1 and will be open until October 13. Starting October 14 through election day, all fifty early voting sites—one per ward, most of which are in schools or parks—will be open Monday through Saturday. All polling locations are ADA compliant. You can find the hours and locations at the CBEC website. If you are registered to vote, no ID is required, but officials recommend you bring one in case you run into snags with your registration. 

If you vote in person on November 3, Election Day, you must vote at the polling location in your home precinct. You can find out where that is on the CBEC website. If you are a government employee or a public school teacher, Election Day is a state holiday for you. Expect to wait in line if you vote in-person on Election Day, and make sure to be in line by 7pm and stay in line so you do not lose your place. “Wear your mask and pack your patience. You might also want to have a chair handy,” said Morrow Cleveland, organizer with Neighbors Who Vote and a Woodlawn resident. 

What if I get a mail-in ballot but decide to vote in person?

That’s totally fine. If you change your mind after requesting a mail-in ballot and decide to vote in person, just take your ballot to your early voting location and exchange it for a ballot to vote in person. Make sure you are not double voting, though,f you have already sent in your mail-in ballot, you cannot vote in-person: it’s a felony to do so or to even attempt it.

Should I be concerned about election or voter fraud?

There is little evidence that mail-in voting is more susceptible to voter fraud, according to multiple independent studies and government reviews. If mail-in vote fraud does happen, it is very rare, Gandhi said. Studies indicate it happens less than 0.001 percent of the time. 

There will always be a paper trail associated with your ballot, Swain said. When voting in person, regardless of whether you use a touch-screen machine or vote with a paper ballot, either method will print out a paper ballot and you will submit that to the election authority. 

The larger concern is election preparedness, according to several elections experts interviewed by WBEZ. If there is a deluge of last-minute mail-in ballots, vote counts could be delayed and there could be heightened concern around fraud. 

I am incarcerated, can I still vote?

If you are currently in pretrial detention without a felony conviction, you have the right to vote and can do so at the Cook County Jail thanks to the passage of IL S.B. 2090 last year.

If you have a felony on your record and you have since been released from prison, you have the right to vote but just need to re-register. “A lot of people think that if they have a felony, they can’t vote for the rest of their life. That is not true,” Phidd said. “The second you step out of prison you have the right to vote again, all you need to do is re-register”.

What if English is not my first language?

All posters, ballots, and voting instructions will be in Spanish and English and in some precincts, Mandarin and/or Hindi. Last October, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance that mandates audio translations in Tagalog, Korean, Polish, Arabic, and Russian be available as well. In some precincts, there also will be bilingual election judges. Bilingual assistance over the phone will be available for Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi speakers. There are also several language hotlines available to provide voter assistance. 

If you or someone you know has any questions or concerns, below are a few community non-profit organizations you can contact:

What should I do if I feel my voter rights are being violated at my polling location?

Thankfully, Gandhi said, most voters have a positive experience at the polls. However, if you feel unwelcome, improperly turned away from the polls, or that your rights as a voter are being violated in any way, let an election judge know (there should be multiple election judges at each polling site) or call the election protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. You can also call the Board of Elections’ Election Central number at 312-263-1394 during early voting or at 312-269-7870 on election day. 

“There are instances of election judges improperly asking for voter ID…even though under Illinois law community members typically do not need an ID in order to vote,” Gandhi said. “We also hear from many voters who are improperly pressured by candidates or campaigns.” Campaigns are required to be at least 100 feet away from the entrance of a polling site. 

“We absolutely encourage anyone to call us [at 866-OUR-VOTE] if they need help or are made to feel uncomfortable at the polling place,” Gandhi said.

Below are the election protection and companion hotlines:

  • 886-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683)—general election protection hotline
  • 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682)—Spanish language hotline
  • 888-API-VOTE (888-274-8683)—Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, and Tagalog language hotline 
  • 844-YALLA-US (844-925-5287)—Arabic language hotline

Can I become an election judge?

Election judges are paid to manage the polling location and help assist voters with early voting and on Election Day. Some of the responsibilities include setting up equipment, opening the polls, issuing the correct ballots to voters, and answering any voter questions. Election Day workers are paid a total of $230 for completing training and serving on election day. Early voting workers will receive $14 per hour. 

As of September 27, the Chicago Board of Elections needed to fill 2,000-3,000 more Election Day judges and as of September 15, 13,000 more paid early voting election jobs. 

Currently, the deadline to apply for Election Day positions is October 18 for adults over eighteen years old. There is currently no deadline to apply for early voter poll positions for citizens over sixteen. For more information about the job requirements and how to apply, see the CBEC website.

Key Election Dates: Timeline

For all information on election dates, locations, and hours, visit chicagoelections.gov.

  • October 1: Loop Super Site polling location is open until October 13.
  • October 14: Early voting polling locations open in all fifty wards.
  • October 14: Suggested last day to send your completed mail-in ballot by mail.
  • October 18: Deadline to register to vote online and deadline to apply to be an election judge.
  • October 29: Last day to request or send your completed mail-in ballot.
  • November 3: Election Day, last day to vote.
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Amy Qin is a contributor to the Weekly. She last interviewed Shapearl Wells and Alison Flowers about Somebody, a podcast that explores racial disparities and distrust for the Chicago Police Department.

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