This is a guest post from Timna Axel, Director of Communications at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, civil rights lawyers and advocates working to secure racial equity and economic opportunity for all.
On Election Day in 2016, Tawanta Wynne went to her polling place in University Park, a south suburb of Chicago. As she checked in with the election judge, he asked for her driver’s license. Tawanta was surprised, because she knew that registered voters in Illinois do not need to show a photo ID in order to vote. She even told him that it was illegal to ask for photo ID. Nevertheless, the election judge refused to wait on her until she had presented her license.
“It was four o’clock when I get there to vote,” recalls Tawanta. The polls had opened at 6am. “I can only imagine how many other people you turned around,” she remembers saying to him.
Tawanta noticed that unlike the majority Black residents of University Park, the election judges at her polling place were all White. The racial dynamic created a sharper tension that stemmed from a long history of laws and practices disenfranchising non-White voters in this country.
“I just felt intimidated,” she admits.
That’s when Tawanta called a hotline she saw posted on the wall: 866-OUR-VOTE. She was able to talk with a volunteer attorney immediately. “It really helped me with what I was going through,” she says.
In every election, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights recruits and trains volunteers for Election Protection, the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection program. Our volunteers have one mission: Make sure that every eligible voter who wishes to cast a ballot can do so. Attorney volunteers will staff our call center downtown at Kirkland & Ellis between 5:45am and 8:00pm on March 17, 2020 to answer calls from voters across Illinois. Other volunteers will be monitoring the polls in person across Chicago and Illinois.
While most Illinois voters who go to the polls will not face problems, it is a fact that in every election some voters will have trouble casting a ballot. That’s because our voting process has multiple gateways, from registering properly to showing up at the right polling place to waiting in line and casting a ballot. Even small problems or delays on this continuum can become a serious hurdle for voters. When layered together, these barriers most acutely impact people of color, voters with a criminal record, low-income voters, voters with disabilities, and those with limited English proficiency.
At our organization, we define justice through a racial equity lens. Our voting rights works is laser-focused on eliminating barriers to voting and civic participation, especially in communities of color and low-income communities, and we use a community-informed strategy to drive our advocacy. For us, justice is denied when any number of voters is improperly turned away from the polls. That’s why we send volunteers to “hot spot” locations where community members have expressed concern about problems at the polls. When problems arise, we work with local election officials to make sure those issues are resolved on the spot.
Of course, we anticipate this election is going to be unique. With the outbreak of COVID-19 and ongoing problems with the implementation of Automatic Voter Registration, there may be a slew of novel and unexpected hurdles for eligible voters. Unexpected polling place closings, long lines, machine breakdowns, electioneering, and other problems are almost certain to keep some voters from casting their ballots.
Voters and observers should know that they can call 866-OUR-VOTE toll-free to connect with a volunteer immediately for assistance. Election Protection also has companion lines for those who speak non-English languages:
- 888-VE-Y-VOTA (English-Spanish) administered by NALEO Educational Fund
- 888-API-VOTE (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Bengali, Hindi & Urdu) administered by Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC and APIA Vote
- 844-YALLA-US (English-Arabic) administered by the Arab American Institute
In this election, it will be incumbent on each one of us to stay safe, stay healthy, and protect the right to vote.