I have a confession to make. Discussions about voting in America deeply vex my soul. As an African-American voter, election seasons in America always unleash months of intra-community debate, voting-related clothing and paraphernalia and a torrent of social media posts regarding the brutal struggle of African-Americans to vote.

“Don’t you understand how much our people struggled to vote?”

“Our people had to fight too hard for you not to vote.”

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”

And hear me well:

I GET IT. I UNDERSTAND IT. HANDS UP, I AGREE. YES, WE MUST DO BETTER TO ENCOURAGE VOTING AMONG NON-VOTERS AND INFREQUENT VOTERS.

As the daughter of two Jim Crow Mississippians who were born in the 1930s and weren’t allowed to vote until they migrated to Chicago in the 1960s, the importance of voting was mother’s milk in my home. Furthermore, with a PhD in Africana Studies, much of my life has been spent thinking about Black struggle in America and on the African continent.

I have observed elections in Florida and Illinois over the last eleven years (working with election protection efforts in Florida and Illinois; attending election judge trainings; observing election judges as a pollwatcher; reviewing post-election data; attending post-election retabulation sessions). Consequently, I continue to be struck by  no actually deeply frustrated by — how much attention we pay to getting out the vote and how little attention is given to how elections are administered in local communities.

Defining Election Protection

According to the Chicago Lawyers for Civil Rights, election protection efforts surged in the 21st century with efforts to combat

more than four million Americans from all over the country who were disenfranchised in 2000. People were denied the right to cast a vote — or to have their vote counted — by a range of problems, including faulty equipment, poorly designed ballots, and untrained poll workers, as well as voter intimidation and suppression efforts and other illegal actions by public officials.

Continuing to expand their efforts, Election Protection is now the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Election Protection helps all American voters, including traditionally disenfranchised groups, gain access to the polls and overcome obstacles to voting.

In their report "Striving To Protect The Vote: A Snapshot of Election Protection 2016," Election Protection reported 117,800 calls from voters in 2016 seeking information or assistance. They also reported that the overwhelming number of problems related to incidents at polling places.

Hunting For Election Protection Efforts In Champaign County

I decided to venture out beyond my own election protection bubble and reach out to the organizations in Champaign County charged with this work. “There, there, dear Nicole!” I said to myself. All you have to do is reach out the the Champaign County Democrats, Champaign County Republicans, League of Women Voters of Champaign County, the NAACP Champaign County, and The People’s Agenda to learn about all the strategies they are deploying to protect the vote.

To my request for an interview: 

  • The Champaign County Republicans did not respond in any way.
  • The NAACP has received the questions, but has not responded at the time this story went to press.
  • The League of Women Voters Champaign County stated that they “could not provide  me with any useful information.”
  • The People’s Agenda has received the questions, but has not responded at the time this story went to press.

The only organization to respond were The Champaign County Democrats who responded to my questions as follows:

Smile Politely: What is your organization doing to "protect the vote' for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections? What local issues are the Champaign County Democrats most concerned about?

Champaign County Democrats: The Voter Protection Committee of the Champaign County Democrats has been focusing most of our effort in this election cycle on recruiting a large number of Champaign County voters to serve as poll watchers in our community. There are sometimes issues at the polls with voters being unnecessarily turned away due to address or name change, and since we have same day voter registration in Illinois, we want to serve as an additional measure of precaution to provide voters with that information. We also want to be present to observe and make note of any problems that may arise with long lines or malfunction of equipment. It benefits all of the voters, regardless of party, if voting process is as efficient as possible, and we hope to serve as observers and spread awareness of how the process plays out on Election Day in a variety of polling places.  

Smile Politely: Given that that Champaign County Clerk candidate Matthew Grandone has mentioned repeatedly during both local candidate forums and to local media that:

Our 12-year-old election equipment is overdue for a one-point-two-million dollar upgrade. Those funds aren’t allocated anywhere currently in the county budget. We have to continue to advocate to our partners in Springfield to make sure that they set aside money, so election authorities can continue to replace their equipment.

Given Grandone's concern, what steps has the Champaign County Democrats taken to pressure on the Champaign County Board and Springfield partners to find monies to update our Champaign County election equipment?

CCD: According to Steve Summers, Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus on the Champaign County Board, although Mr. Hulten has spoken about the need to update equipment, his FY 2019 budget request makes no mention of updating election equipment. The County received a Federal HAVA (Help America Vote Act) grant for FY 2019, but this grant can only be used for election cyber security, not equipment. The Board's focus for FY 2019 is to upgrade the county software which is woefully outdated. At this point, there's just not the sufficient revenue to update that equipment. 

Smile Politely: Grandone's opponent for Champaign County Clerk, Aaron Ammons, has discussed concerns about student and minority disenfranchisement and "focusing on groups that are underrepresented at the polls" in local elections. How will The Champaign County Democrats address these concerns for voters?

CCD: With over 100 polling places in Champaign County, we can't cover them all with our poll watching efforts this year. We have identified about 25 key precincts where there have been reports of individual voters being turned away for various reasons, problems with malfunctioning machines, or a lack of sufficient ballots. These precincts include areas with a higher percentage of student and minority voters. 

Smile Politely: Please share any final election protection reminders you have or want to share with voters.

CCD: We are encouraging voters to do three things:

First, everyone should check to make sure their voter registration is active before they head to their polling place. This can be done through the County Clerk's website.

Second, we encourage everyone to bring proof of their current address and a photo I.D. when they go to vote. Lack of proof of address is one of the number one reasons people are turned away from the polls. Since Illinois has same-day voter registration, individuals who have both of these items with them can register to vote and cast their ballot right away if something impacts their voter registration, rather than having to make an additional trip.

Finally, we are encouraging voters to either vote by mail or at one of the many early voting locations that are available both evenings and weekends, now through Monday, November 5th. These conveniences make voting easier than ever, and give the voter more time to respond to any error that might prevent casting a ballot. If many people vote early, that also makes the process go more smoothly for those who wait until election day to vote either because they want the extra time to research the candidates and issues or they appreciate the ceremony of voting on Election Day.

We want voting to be an efficient and positive experience for all involved!
Thank you for providing an opportunity to share this information with voters!

Action Steps for Voters

So, I hope that this article encourages residents and civic organizations across Champaign County to think more broadly about voting to include election administration and election protection in Champaign County.

Furthermore, be sure to do the following:

Information about Election Protection

To report a problem or for general elections/voting questions:
Call:  866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683)

For inquiries about volunteering with Election Protection:
Email: volunteer@866ourvote.org.