Mission & Staff
The right to vote is fundamental to a healthy democracy. The Voting Rights Project works to ensure equality and equal access for all citizens—especially those who have been historically disenfranchised or under-represented—in our electoral process. We work to ensure that each eligible citizen is able cast a ballot and make her voice heard.
Our work includes:
- Training and Education: We lead training efforts in Chicago and surrounding communities to ensure that voters know their rights, election officials understand and follow the correct laws, policies, and procedures, and that all concerned individuals know how to access legal assistance when problems arise.
- Comprehensive Election Protection: We coordinate election protection efforts and voter rights advocacy efforts in the Midwest. Leveraging the strength of volunteer attorneys and a strong relationship with the National Lawyers’ Committee, we work to protect fair elections and ensure that every eligible voter can exercise their most basic and fundamental right – the right to vote.
- Advocacy for Stronger Laws and Policies: Developing our advocacy initiatives in close coordination with community organizations, we work to dismantle barriers that disproportionately burden people of color, immigrants and low-income communities. We collaborate community groups to develop better laws, policies and procedure to ensure voter access. For example, we continue to advocate for expansion of same day voter registration, while drafting new legislation based on our experiences. Through coordinated efforts with partners, we advance shared goals across the region.
- Litigation to Enforce and Defend Strong Election Laws: Working with a trained corps of volunteer attorneys from partner laws firms, we fight for enforcement of strong election laws in state and federal courts. We defend these laws when they are challenged.
Key Project Staff
Ami Gandhi, Director of Voting Rights and Civic Empowerment
What is Election Protection?
Working with the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, DLA Piper, Kirkland and Ellis LLP, and numerous organizations representing communities of color, our Voting Rights Project leads the local team for Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition. During the 2016 election season we trained and deployed over 300 volunteer lawyers who answered over 1000 calls to the Chicago call center of the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, and we monitored hundreds of polling places throughout Chicago and suburban counties.
Resources for Volunteers
Election Day Registration is available in all polling places in Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, Will, and many other counties. Click here for a full list of where Election Day Registration is available in each county in Illinois.
The location of polling places in Illinois with bilingual election workers offering assistance to voters in Spanish, Chinese, or Hindi can be found here.
Background on Election Protection
The 2000 elections were a wake-up call. More than four million Americans from all over the country 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.
Election Protection began in June 2001 as a pilot program for a special election in Virginia. Election Protection has grown since then so that today the 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) Hotline is available to voters in every state during general elections, and volunteers monitor polling places across the country to help ensure that no voters are disenfranchised at the polls.
Through its state of the art hotlines: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (administered by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law) and 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota (administered by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund), its website (www.866ourvote.org), and comprehensive voter protection field programs across the country, Election Protection provides Americans from coast to coast with comprehensive voter information and advice on how they can make sure their vote is counted.
Our Legal Advocacy
Data and stories from Election Protection drive our community engagement, policy, advocacy, and litigation work. The Voting Rights Project was an instrumental part of passing Election Day Registration into law in Illinois in 2015. Following a legal challenge in federal court weeks before the 2016 general election, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and other advocates fought for the preservation of Election Day Registration. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals permitted Election Day Registration to go forward in polling places, and over 100,000 Illinois voters used it to register and vote on November 8 in all counties in the state. Our Voting Rights Project initiatives are based on input from community leaders and voters, ranging from improving access for voters in pretrial detention to providing civil rights perspectives on policy issues such as automatic voter registration and redistricting reform.
Election Day Registration
In August 2016, the Liberty Justice Center, the legal arm of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, filed suit against S.B. 172 claiming violations of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. We filed an an amicus brief jointly with the ACLU of Illinois, Better Government Association, League of Women Voters of Illinois, and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform urging the court to reject the effort to eliminate EDR so close to the November general election. In October, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit stayed the decision of U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan to grant a motion blocking Election Day registration at Illinois polling places before the November general election.
In the 2016 general elections, Illinois residents from every county participated in Election Day Registration (EDR), a critical tool for civic empowerment and access to the vote. Check out this chart to see the number of voters who used EDR to register and vote on Election Day on November 8, 2016.
Campaign Finance Reform
In May 2017, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights filed an amicus brief in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals with local and national partners supporting Illinois’s campaign finance reform laws in the face of a lawsuit that seeks to weaken the ability of state legislatures to craft commonsense solutions to address the problem of big money in politics.
Curbing Partisan Gerrymandering
Partisan gerrymandering is currently at an all-time high. Across America, parties manipulate district lines for their own partisan advantage, and voters are denied an effective voice in electing their representatives. This distortion of our democracy can and should be stopped by the courts. On several occasions, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that gerrymandering can violate the Fourteenth Amendment, and some Justices have hinted that it may be unlawful under the First Amendment as well. Despite these comments, the Court has been unable to come up with a workable legal standard for distinguishing valid from invalid maps. But the Court is clearly open to new ideas in this area.
In 2015, our Voting Rights Project filed suit alleging that the Wisconsin state legislative districts are a partisan gerrymander. On December 17, a federal three-judge unanimously rejected Attorney General Brad Schimel’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
On November 21, 2016 a three-judge federal district court panel in Wisconsin ruled 2-1 that the state's Republican leaders had unconstitutionally drawn electoral districts to "entrench" their control over the state Assembly. Read the decision here.
This case will now be appealed by the state to the Supreme Court, where it has the potential to limit the extent of partisan gerrymandering not just in Wisconsin, but across the country. Read more from the Fair Elections Project.
Improving Minority Representation
In April 2015 we released The Color of Representation, the first comprehensive report on the representation of people of color in Illinois at the level of cities, counties, and school boards. Local governments affect the practices of the police, the distribution of public resources, and the way that the schools educate the next generation of leaders. We identified 38 places that have elected officials that don't reflect the racial diversity of the community. We are now working with some of the 38 target communities to develop a litigation strategy to help them improve minority representation.
Success Story: Blue Island
On February 9, 2016 the Blue Island City Council voted to adopt a new redistricting plan that includes three majority black wards and one majority Latino ward (out of a total of seven wards). This is an increase of one Latino and one black majority ward, and means that people of color will be able to elect their candidates of choice to a majority of the City Council in the coming years.
The vote to adopt a new plan came after months of public hearings that were instituted in response to a pre-litigation letter sent by Chicago Lawyers' Committee with the expert assistance of Jeff Cummings and Judd Miner of Miner, Barnhill & Galland and Jorge Sanchez of MALDEF. The Chicago Lawyers' Committee worked with local activists from CASA Blue Island and the NAACP Far South Suburban Branch to bring dozens of community members to hearings to testify about what they want their community's democracy to look like.
Are you are interested in learning more? Would you like us to come and present the report in your community? Do you think your local jurisdiction may be in violation of the Voting Rights Act?
March 9, 2017 - Legal Fellow Ryan Cortazar testified before the Illinois State Advisory Commission to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding language barriers and access to the polls. (Appendix)
March 3, 2017 - Director of Voting Rights and Civic Empowerment Ami Gandhi and Legal Fellow Ryan Cortazar testified to the Illinois House Elections & Campaign Finance Committee about voter access barriers in Illinois.
The Voting Rights Project does research and reporting on a range of voting rights, civic engagement and policy issues.
Voting Rights Project in the News
Chicago Reporter: Ability to Vote Compromised for Thousands Behind Bars | June 30, 2017
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: Report: Lawyers’ Committee election hotline got more than 1,000 calls | June 27, 2017
Black Youth Project: Liberation is a 3-step process: Broadening activism’s scope in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives | May 30, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times: Threat to voting rights not only in the South | April 27, 2017
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: Volunteers dedicate day to voting rights | November 8, 2016
Huffington Post: It’s Not Your Imagination: Early Voting Took A Very Long Time In Places | November 7, 2016
Univision Chicago: ¿Podría cometerse un fraude electoral en Estados Unidos? | October 29, 2016
WTTW Chicago Tonight: Debating the Ruling on Election Day Registration | September 28, 2016
Crain's Chicago Business: Judge's ruling reduces Election Day registration in Illinois | September 27, 2016
Windy City Times: Voting Rights Groups to Court: Protect Voting Opportunities for November Election | August 31, 2016