Across Chicago area, a surge in new voters on rolls as ‘intense’ midterm approaches

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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.

“We are in a more intense time,” he said.

Registration revolutions

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.

READ MORE: The midterm elections are coming — here’s a cheat sheet to get you through »

“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.

READ MORE: Headed to the Women’s March Chicago on Saturday? Here’s what you need to know. »

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.”

kgalioto@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @katiegalioto

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October 12, 2018 at 06:33AM

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