With the 2014 general election just 13 months away and voter registration numbers at an all-time low, hundreds of volunteers took to Chicagoland streets Tuesday to mark National Voter Registration Day in an effort to get as many new voters on the rolls as possible.
“Election after election, millions of voters aren’t able to vote because they miss voter registration deadlines or they didn’t know how to register,” said Rebecca Reynolds, 28, executive director of Chicago Votes. “This day is a day to try to make sure we leave no one out.”
Chicago Votes, a volunteer-run civic engagement advocacy group, served as Illinois’ lead organization on Tuesday’s national day of action to increase voter registration. More than 40 local groups, including the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, partnered with Chicago Votes to encourage residents to exercise their basic right to vote.
“Voter registration has hit an all-time low in the city of Chicago,” said Reynolds. “We’re trying to make voter registration easier, and more accessible to everybody.”
Approximately 500,000 of Chicago’s eligible voters, in the city of more than 2 million residents, were not registered to vote in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The primary for Illinois’ 2014 general election is March 18, and on November 4, Illinoisans will choose their governor as well as representatives in Congress, the Illinois General Assembly, and other offices including county commissioners and judicial officers.
“It actually is really difficult to find a voter registration form and actually be able to register to vote in advance of elections,” said Reynolds, who added that Chicago Votes largely focuses their push for increased civic engagement on younger potential voters.
Only about 30 percent of Illinois’ eligible young voters, aged 18 to 29, participated in local elections, according to the National Conference on Citizenship's analysis of Current Population Survey data. Nationwide, about 35 percent of people in that age range voted in local elections.
“We need to get Chicagoans, and specifically young Chicagoans, plugged into their democracy,” said Reynolds.
At least 51 million eligible voters nationwide were unregistered, as of 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2008, the year President Barack Obama made history by becoming the nation’s first African-American president, nearly 30 percent of voting-aged Americans were not registered to vote, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.
“For our democracy to work, people’s voices need to be heard,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who participated in a National Voter Registration Day media event with ICIRR on Tuesday.
ICIRR submitted nearly 10,500 new voter registration forms that were collected throughout the year to Orr’s office during the event. Majority of the voter registrations came from new immigrants. Local politicians, such as Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) and Ald. Danny Solis (25th) also attended the event.
In registering new voters, ICIRR hopes to put pressure on members of Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
“We’re not saying ‘support a Democrat, or support a Republican.’ We’re saying, ‘educate yourself on the issues that you care about and find out where you stand on the issues,’” said Lawrence Benito, CEO and executive director of ICIRR. “Our candidate is our issue, and this year it’s immigration reform.”
ICIRR has been engaged in registering new immigrant voters since 2004 and, according to Benito, the non-profit has registered more than 150,000 voters since that time.
But Illinois makes civic engagement “difficult,” according to Orr, because the state only legalized online voter registration this year. The registration period closes 28 days prior to an election, he noted, and, despite a grace period, the state does not permit same-day registration.
Here’s more from Orr:
Meanwhile, Annisa Wanat, 40, a former social studies teacher and Peace Corps member, volunteered for roughly four hours with Chicago Votes to help register new voters.
“Voting is the cornerstone of everything we do here in the United States,” she said. “The decrease in civic education and participation saddens me ... Our voter turnout rates are pretty low and it’s really disheartening.”
Last year, Chicago Votes registered 1,000 new voters on National Voter Registration Day and through partner organizations, more than 6,000 people registered to cast their ballot.
The Bus Federation kicked started the 50-state effort last year for the 2012 presidential election. The volunteer-driven organization focused on increasing democratic participation among young people.
“The only way you can be heard is if you get yourself counted and the basis for that starts with voting,” Wanat said. “If we don’t take advantage of our right to vote, I find it very difficult to think anything will change. If the masses don’t change, and start actually telling our elected officials what we want, I don’t think anything will get done.”