Our Voting Rights team, with the help of invaluable Election Protection volunteers, has been hard at work preparing for the November 8th General Election and anticipating the challenges that voters may face at the polls. The 866-OUR-VOTE Election Protection hotline is live, and volunteers are already helping voters by answering questions and addressing concerns. Election Protection is the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection coalition whose local efforts are run by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Kirkland and Ellis LLP, and Common Cause. On Election Day, a large team of volunteers recruited by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee will answer calls from voters in Illinois and Indiana. Trained volunteer poll watchers supported voters during early voting, including supporting voters in pre-trial detention exercising their right to vote at Cook County Jail and Will County Adult Detention Facility, and these volunteers will also support voters at polling places on Election Day.
As always, we are focused on securing voter access during all forms of voting—from mail-in voting to in-person voting at a precinct-based voting location. In Chicago, voters have expressed concern about the potential impact of the newly drawn Chicago ward and precinct maps and the resulting reduction in polling places in the city. Precincts are the political boundaries that determine what ballot a voter receives and where they go to vote. Multiple precincts can utilize the same location for a polling place—though each precinct is required to be fully staffed even if it shares a polling place location.
Polling place closures warrant scrutiny, especially given the 73 closures and over 50 late openings that negatively affected voters in the 2022 June Primary. Over the past four years, the total number of polling places has been reduced significantly because of both precinct consolidation (which is required by law) and because of changes in the availability of locations. There were approximately 1,380 Chicago polling places in the 2018 General Election and 1,043 in the 2022 Primary. There are 945 polling places set for this year’s General Election, a reduction of 9.4% since the recent primary and 31.5% since the 2018 midterm.
Election officials suggest that a reduced number of precincts will be easier to fully staff and equip with adequate resources. Chicago Lawyers’ Committee hopes that the General Election experience will be better for voters than the June Primary, but we remain concerned for voters who may be impacted by the significant changes to polling places that have occurred in a relatively short time. The changes and closures of polling places can create additional barriers to accessing the ballot.
Any new barriers to voting, including reducing the number of polling places and changing where communities vote, can disproportionally impact communities of color who continue to face increasing barriers to voting nationwide and challenges to their collective voting power. From national examples related to polling place closures, we know that an increase in the distance between a voter’s residence and their polling place can disproportionately reduce turnout among voters of color, and residents of entirely Black neighborhoods could wait longer to vote than residents of entirely white neighborhoods. Polling place closures do not lead to disenfranchisement in every instance. But voters’ experiences from other parts of the country remind us that safeguards are needed to prevent polling place consolidation from reducing turnout and increasing wait times—particularly for Black voters. At the very least, communities of color should be meaningfully engaged on the front end of such policy changes to guard against inadvertent disenfranchisement.
Nearly 50% of Chicago voters will have a new polling place this election (a PDF of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners statement is available here). We encourage voters to keep an eye out for mailers informing them of new polling places and to also check the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners’ site to identify their new polling place, as well as universal polling place options.
We are hopeful that the voter access options in Chicago will help to counter the potential problems that come along with polling place reductions, changes, and closures. In anticipation of these and other challenges, our Election Protection team continues to assist voters during early voting and on Election Day. If you have questions or concerns before or on Election Day, call 866-OUR-VOTE, 844-YALLA-US, 888-VE-Y-VOTA, or 888-API-VOTE. Get your questions answered and make a plan to vote today!