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Op-ed: ‘Right-to-Vote’ amendment would strengthen Illinois’ role as ballot-access pioneer

When it comes to the most vital and fundamental aspect of our democracy, the right to vote, Illinois has compiled an impressive record that ranks us among national leaders. In the past two years alone, we’ve enacted several laws that will expand ballot access for the Nov. 4 election.

We made it simpler for people to register and to vote by launching online voter registration and offering Election Day registration. We expanded the number of people eligible to vote, as well as the hours and length of early voting. We improved how provisional ballots are counted. And, voters will have the opportunity on Nov. 4 to ensure that Illinois never enacts laws similar to ones we’ve seen in other states that deny eligible citizens the right to vote.

We’re guided by a simple concept: our democracy is always stronger when more people participate. More voters means more people invested in our government. It means greater diversity of views for elected officials to consider. We’ve still got a ways to go – such as continuing to reduce the influence of big money in our politics and governance.

But we’re moving in the right direction – even as battles rage in other states over new voter suppression laws, such as ones requiring voters to produce state-issued photo IDs. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which tracks election laws across the country, reported earlier this year that more than 20 states have added voting restrictions since 2010.

Illinois, on the other hand, is one of 11 states expanding voter access, according to the Brennan Center. Here’s a look at some of the ways we’ve improved our democracy:

  • Online voter registration: For the first time, Illinoisans have been able to register online. That means more people will be registered, especially younger voters. Between July 1 and Oct. 6, more than 25,676 people registered online – both new voters and voters taking advantage of this more convenient way to change their voting information.  Plus, online voter registration will save money. It costs 3 cents to process an online registration as opposed to 83 cents for a paper application.
  • Election Day registration: Illinoisans can now register and cast their vote on Election Day. This option will be available at designated locations in each voting jurisdiction – although not in every precinct. There are five Election Day registration sites in Chicago (chicagoelections.com) and 18 in suburban Cook County (cookcountyclerk.com). Likewise, voters who miss the regular registration deadline on Oct. 7 can register at select locations during the grace period, which runs until the day before the election. For the first time, all suburban Cook County early voting locations will offer grace period registration for suburban residents.
  • Early voting extended: Early voting is a popular option for people who can’t vote on Election Day or who prefer to vote on a weekend. So we’ve extended early voting by one day to the Sunday before the election. The weekday hours during the second week of early voting, Oct. 27 to Oct. 31, have also been extended until 7 p.m. at some locations so people can cast their ballots after work.
  • College absentee voting centers: It’s now easier for college students to vote, with the creation of in-person absentee voting centers on the campuses of certain large public universities. You can find a list of locations on the Illinois State Board of Elections website (elections.il.gov).
  • 17-year-old primary voters: Earlier this year, we allowed 17-year-olds to vote in the primary election for the first time provided they would turn 18 before the Nov. 4 election. More than 7,000 eligible 17-year-olds registered to vote in Chicago and suburban Cook County, and the Chicago Tribune reported that their turnout in the March primary in some cases exceeded that of voters old enough to be their parents.
  • Counting provisional ballots: One area in which Illinois has lagged is ensuring that provisional ballots are properly accounted for. As a result, we changed provisional voting rules last year so that ballots mistakenly cast in the wrong precinct may still be counted in the correct precinct.
  • “Right-to-Vote” Amendment: Finally, the General Assembly placed on the Nov. 4 ballot a proposed constitutional amendment designed to prevent the kind of voter suppression laws we’re seeing in other states. The “Right-to-Vote Amendment” would prohibit enactment of any lawin Illinois that would disproportionately affect the rights of eligible Illinois citizens to vote based on race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation or income.

Republicans sometimes say expanding voter access is just a way to get more Democrats to the polls, on the theory that those new voters are more likely to cast ballots for Democrats. But we’re happy to note that Republican leaders in Illinois are more enlightened on this issue than many of their colleagues in other states. During debate on the Right-to-Vote amendment in the Illinois Senate, GOP state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine described the measure as one recognizing “the fundamental, quintessentially American concept of the right to vote.”

Democracy only works if enough of us participate, exercising our right to vote for which so much has been sacrificed from the time of the American Revolution, to the Civil Rights movement, and through today’s struggle against voter suppression. Illinois’ leadership on voting rights means voters in our state can make their voices heard more easily than ever before.

***State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) has served in the Illinois Senate since 2003. He is Senate President Pro Tempore. David Orr has served as Cook County clerk since 1991. The Cook County Clerk's Office acts as the election authority for more than 120 towns and villages in suburban Cook County.

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