Chicago groups prepare for Nov. 8 election

Trainer explains voter rules
Carmen Colvin, a trainer with the Chicago Board of Election, explains election judge rules to high school students at Block 37 on Sept. 28, 2016. (Christen Gall/MEDILL)

By Christen Gall

With six weeks until election day, organizations across the city are working to include voters that may otherwise be left out.

“There’s a lot of energy in the Latino and Arab communities about what it [the election] means,” said Villanueva, youth engagement manager of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “[There’s] a lot of solidarity being built. A lot of it has come out of the attack on immigrant communities.”

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights works to engage Chicago’s diverse array of Latino, Arab, African, European and Asian immigrants.

And this election has united immigrant communities because of campaign rhetoric about many immigrant groups, said Villanueva.

Villanueva said her group hopes to register 25,000 people in immigrant communities in the city and surrounding suburbs before the election.

A recent federal court ruling on voter registration has organizations like Villanueva’s concerned.

The 2016 general election was going to be the first presidential election with same day voter registration in precincts throughout Illinois, until a federal judge in the 7th circuit ruled the same day registration unconstitutional on Voter Registration Day. The Cook County Clerk’s Office promised to appeal the lawsuit. Election day registration is now available at a limited number of locations that are still being determined, according to the  Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago.

While discouraged by the ban on the same day voter registration, organizations say they will continue to register people to vote under the various registration deadlines.

The Chicago Board of Election estimates that about 70 percent of registered voters in Chicago will show up to the polls on Nov. 8. Voter turnout is historically higher for presidential elections, and in Chicago it’s no exception.

In the 2012 presidential election, 75.41 percent of registered voters came to the polls, up from 73.87 in 2008, according to the Chicago  Board of Election. During non-presidential elections in 2014 and 2010, 48.81 percent and 52.88 percent of Chicago voted respectively.

The Chicago Citywide Literary Coalition, in partnership with the Cook County Clerk’s Office, created a voter registration guide this year for literary organizations they work with across the city.

The guide is specifically directed toward adults lacking literacy skills who may never have voted before. The guide explains voter registration deadlines, gives a general overview of the election ballot, and shares language options available on the ballot.

Becky Raymond, executive director of the Chicago Citywide Literary Coalition, that represents adult education groups, said their goal is to empower adults in Chicago who struggle with basic skills.

“Institutional settings in general can be intimidating to adults in our program,” said Raymond.

Some voters may not understand how the machines work or the ballot process if they haven’t voted in the past, explained Raymond. The guide is available in Spanish for those are not fluent in English.  According to the Chicago Board of Election, ballots are available in Spanish, Hindi and Chinese at certain polling locations in Chicago.

“So much of it is confidence that you belong there,” said Mark Mesle, outreach director at the Cook County Clerk’s office who worked closely with Raymond to put together the guide.

“That your vote matters. [That] you deserve to be part of the process,” said Mesle.

Only 22 percent of people across the United States who did not complete high school and 34 percent with a high school education voted in the last election, according to the U.S. Census in 2014. In contrast, 53 percent of U.S. citizens with a bachelor’s degree and 62 percent with an advanced degree voted.

Students are also actively taking part in the election process, a group that often has low voter turnout.

The Mikva Challenge, a Chicago-based non-profit started by the late Abner Mikva, a former Congressman and federal court judge, focuses on civically engaging youth, hopes to give high school students opportunities to see how the election works firsthand by training them to work as election judges at the polls even before they are eligible to vote. Election judges open each polling place, monitor the polling location and give the final voting results to officials.

Meghan Goldenstein, the group’s elections in action program director, said students must be a junior and senior in good standing with at least a 3.0 GPA to be eligible. They receive the same training as adults through the Chicago Board of Election. Often students participating are more technology savvy than adults working at the polls and have language skills.

Goldenstein said half of the student election judges were bi-lingual last year, which was an asset to non-English speakers at the polling booths.

“You’re helping them exercise their most basic rights as citizens,” said Goldenstein.

Around 1,900 students applied to be election judges through the Mikva Challenge this year. Goldenstein said that young people are often uninvited to the election process, and their goal is to help students engage in political issues they are passionate about.

“If you give them the tools to take action on things they care about the rest will follow,” said Goldenstein.

Carmen Colvin, a trainer with the Chicago Board of Election, explains election judge rules to high school students at Block 37 on Sept. 28, 2016. (Christen Gall/MEDILL)