Ethan Viets-VanLear has taken to the streets of Chicago with other protesters calling for police accountability and considers himself an activist, but he never thought his vote mattered much.
The 23-year-old said the last election cycle was his wake-up call. He realized how election outcomes, particularly in local races, can affect his everyday life. So last summer, Viets-VanLear, a Rogers Park resident, registered to vote for the first time.
“It’s just the next step,” he said. “We’re protesting politicians, but we’re not getting our own people in and we’re not getting the bad ones out.”
He’s part of a rise in registered voters in the Chicago region heading into next month’s midterm elections, a trend experts attribute at least in part to a partisan battle for control of Congress, a particularly polarizing president and statewide efforts to make signing up easier.
In suburban Cook County, for instance, more than 60,000 voters have been added to the rolls since the 2016 election. That brings the total number of voters registered by the Cook County clerk’s office — which oversees elections immediately outside Chicago — to almost 1.6 million, a record high that will only grow as the Nov. 6 election nears.
From the major parties to major celebrities, voter registration has grabbed the spotlight across the country. Just this week, singer Taylor Swift took to Instagram, encouraging people to register to vote; two days later Vote.org saw more than 100,000 new voter registrations through its site, spokeswoman Kamari Guthrie told The Washington Post.
Though more people registered doesn’t necessarily equal more votes, many officials said this year’s numbers could be a sign of above-average turnout for a midterm.
With Illinois’ many competitive races — an attack-heavy gubernatorial matchup and a few House contests with the potential to flip Congress — surging interest in the nation’s political affairs could turn out crowds of voters larger than typical for an election without presidential candidates on the ballot.
“There are a lot of people who are really stirred up, who might not have been so stirred up in 2016, who are now pretty anxious about what’s going on in the country,” said John Mark Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
The uptick in registrations also could be the product of changes in state law, election officials said. Laws passed in recent years have introduced same-day registration to Illinois and approved automated voter registration, a system set to fully roll out in 2019 that will automatically add voters to the rolls when they get their driver’s licenses or state IDs.
According to election data from the city and surrounding counties, the total number of registered voters — particularly in Chicago and suburban Cook County — last spiked in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama first ran for president and sent locals flocking to the polls.
After Obama settled into the White House, many of those totals dropped in the elections that followed, some by substantial amounts. The number of registered voters in the Chicago area during the 2010 midterms was a valley compared with 2008’s peak, one the city has slowly been climbing out of in the years since.
Now the total number of registered voters in Chicago and its suburbs is back up, with some election agencies reporting counts exceeding their 2008 tallies.
“I think it would be the most meek and mild understatement to say there’s more interest this year,” said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
An ‘intense time’ for voters
Competition brings out voters, Hansen said. That’s why he said he expects turnout for the midterm to be on the high side.
“Not that it will rival a presidential election,” Hansen said. “We’ve hardly ever seen anything like that.”
Illinois’ gubernatorial election, the most expensive in state history, will likely bump up turnout, Hansen said. The winner of the contentious contest between two wealthy candidates — incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker — will have a voice in the redistricting process after the 2020 census when states redraw their congressional maps.
As the Democrats seek to loosen the GOP’s grip on Congress, money and attention are being poured into competitive House and Senate races across the country — including contests in four Illinois congressional districts, all seats held by Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam is battling to keep his northwest suburban seat in the 6th Congressional District from Sean Casten, a Democrat and clean-energy entrepreneur running for office for the first time.
Next door in the 14th District, Democrat Lauren Underwood, who served as an adviser in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, is challenging veteran Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren.
Democrats see an opportunity in Roskam’s district in particular because Hillary Clinton carried it by 7 percentage points in 2016. Hultgren’s district trends more toward the GOP, but Trump prevailed by less than 4 percentage points in 2016 after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney beat Obama by 10 points there in 2012.
Farther south in the state, U.S. Reps. Mike Bost and Rodney Davis also are fending off Democratic challengers in races expected to be close.
Voters may approach these congressional elections with a new sense of urgency because of their implications for national policy, said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman. Victories in key House races will determine which party controls the chamber moving forward, which will influence the extent to which the president is able to push his agenda.
“There are people who are stirred up about which way the country’s going, whether they support Trump or they oppose Trump,” Simpson said.
The energy surrounding this year’s contests is unusual for a midterm but not unprecedented, Simpson said. He drew parallels to the 1974 midterms, which took place in the wake of the Watergate scandal and former President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
“We are in a more intense time,” he said.
Illinois started offering online voter registration in 2014. Two years later it introduced the option of same-day registration at the polls. Officials are in the process of implementing a state law passed last year that automatically registers those applying for a driver’s license or state ID at the secretary of state’s office.
That means today’s Illinois voters have some options. They can register online until Oct. 21, and there’s a grace period allowing people to register and vote simultaneously at polling places until Election Day.
Kane, Kendall and Will counties are experiencing some of the most significant surges in registrations because of the dissolution of the Aurora Election Commission decided by a vote in the March primary. The three county clerk’s offices absorbed the suburban city’s former precincts, adding segments of voters to the rolls that are not reflected in previous years’ registration counts.
This influx of voters, in addition to those expected to join the rolls in coming years as automatic registration is implemented, may affect the logistics of elections, Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham said. Finding locations to house the polls, hiring judges for each precinct and paying for voting equipment could get more difficult and costly with more voters registered.
“Basically, this means in four years your voter registration could really go up — that’s a lot of money for us,” said Cunningham, who is preparing to oversee more than 300 voting precincts this election that require more than $6 million worth of equipment. He hopes to push for legislation in the coming months to revamp the voting system so that it’s more efficient and accommodating for parts of the state where the population of voters is expanding.
In Chicago, on the other hand, Allen said he has fewer concerns related to growth because the number of registered voters in the city is always fluctuating.
“It’s constantly changing because there are people who are moving in and out,” he said, citing recent shifts as largely a product of population trends — though he does expect the number of registered voters to rise once the process becomes fully automatic.
“But that means our turnout goes down because there’s fatter rolls with the same number of participants,” Allen added.
Getting out the vote
There are still plenty of people to reel in — about a quarter of those old enough to vote in the Chicago area were not registered in 2016, using population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The next step would be to address turnout, a whole different ballgame. Political circumstance can help drive voters to the polls, experts said, if it stirs a new sense of interest in an election and its effects — like this year’s races seem poised to do.
In the last two midterms, 2014 and 2010, voter turnout among those registered in Chicago and its suburbs hovered near 50 percent. In recent presidential election years it’s been around 70 percent.
Campaigns and activists across the political spectrum have increased registration and get-out-the-vote efforts this year in light of the number of competitive races with potentially substantial political ramifications.
Women’s March Chicago, for example, is hosting a march and rally in Grant Park on Saturday to encourage women and first-time voters to head to the polls.
That’s how Viets-VanLear plans to cast his first ballot — alongside friends and crowds of other young voters at Chicago’s early voting site after Saturday’s march. He registered over the summer online, a process he found much quicker than expected.
“It took like two minutes,” Viets-VanLear said. Now he’s helping his peers add their names to the rolls through Chicago Votes, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on youth engagement in the political process.
Election officials said they hope all the action is a sign that legislation is accomplishing what it was designed to do and making it easier for residents to do their civic duty.
“It’s seeming as if it’s busier than the previous elections,” said Suzanne Fahnestock, interim executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission. “We’re not complaining. We’re just observing.”
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October 12, 2018 at 06:33AM