Around the country, voter suppression battles are raging. But here at home, Illinois is leading the charge for voter rights and expanding ballot access. We're guided by a simple concept: Our democracy is always stronger when more people participate.
With the Nov. 4 election just weeks away, here's a look at some of the ways we've improved our democracy:
For the first time, Illinoisans registered to vote online. When the deadline rolled around at 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 7, more than 30,000 people had registered online — both new voters and voters taking advantage of this more convenient way to update their voting information. Plus, online voter registration saves money. It costs 3 cents to process an online registration as opposed to 83 cents for a paper application.
Missed the Oct. 7 registration deadline? That's OK. Grace period registration runs through Nov. 3 at select locations, and it will now be offered during early voting at all suburban Cook County sites. Illinoisans will also have the opportunity to register and cast their vote on Election Day. While this pilot Election Day registration will not be available in every precinct, there are 18 designated sites in suburban Cook County, including Oak Park Village Hall.
Early Voting starts Monday, Oct. 20. It's become so popular we've extended it by one day to the Sunday before the election. During the second week of early voting, Oct. 27-31, many sites will stay open until 7 p.m., including Oak Park Village Hall, so people can cast their ballots after work.
Getting the next generation involved is also our mission. 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 (locations at elections.il.gov). And earlier this year, more than 7,000 eligible 17-year-olds registered to vote in Cook County for the first time. Those teenagers will be 18 by Nov. 4 — and ready to participate in their first general election.
We also changed provisional voting rules last year so that ballots mistakenly cast in the wrong precinct may still be counted in the correct precinct.
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 law in 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 during debate on the Right-to-Vote Amendment in the Illinois Senate, GOP Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine lauded the measure as 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 American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement 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.
Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, is Illinois Senate President Pro Tempore. He has sponsored several new election reform laws, including online voter registration and same-day registration. Cook County Clerk David Orr led the fight for early voting and teen election judges and supported the recent measures for expanding voter access.