Mission & Staff
The right to vote is fundamental to a healthy democracy. The Voting Rights Project works to prevent, reduce, and eliminate barriers to voting and civic participation, especially in communities of color and low-income communities, to ensure that each eligible citizen is able to cast a ballot and make her voice heard.
Our work includes:
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.
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.
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.
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
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 2018 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.
Field volunteers are needed for election day on April 2, 2019!
Resources for voters and volunteers
Top Issues to Field in Illinois April 2019 [PDF]
Illinois April 2019 Frequently Asked Questions [PDF]
Chicago Board of Elections Voter Lookup [Link]
Cook County Clerk’s Office Voter Lookup [Link]
Illinois State Board of Elections Voter Lookup [Link]
2019 Bilingual Election Judge Coverage [Spreadsheet]
February 2019 Voting with a Criminal Conviction [PDF]
Primer for Voting Equipment and Forms on Election Day [PDF]
Chicago Election Judge Handbook [Link]
Top Issues to Field in Illinois 2018 [PDF]
Illinois 2018 Frequently Asked Questions [PDF]
How to vote in November 2018 if you have previously been convicted of a crime in Illinois [PDF flyer]
Illinois Election Day Registration (EDR) Sites in 2018 [PDF]
2018 Bilingual Election Judge Coverage [Spreadsheet]
Letter to Texas authorities regarding Section 208 language assistance [PDF]
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), 844-Yalla-US (administered by the Arab American Institute), its website (www.866ourvote.org) and 1-888-API-VOTE (administered by Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice), 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. 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.
Automatic Voter Registration (AVR)
Working closely with other organizations in the Just Democracy Illinois coalition, the Voting Rights Project advocated for the passage of Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) in order to modernize the voter registration process and to reduce racial disparities in voting. The Illinois legislature passed AVR with unanimous, bipartisan support, and Gov. Rauner signed it into law in August 2017.
AVR changes the process to register to vote at state agencies from an opt-in system, where eligible voters must take multiple additional steps to be registered, to an opt-out system that registers all eligible voters unless they request to be left off the voter rolls. AVR also shifts agency registration from a paper-based to an electronic system. A well-designed AVR system registers more eligible voters, saves taxpayer money, and results in a more accurate and secure voter list.
Unfortunately, the Secretary of State’s office has failed to properly implement AVR. Illinois has missed the July 1, 2018 statutory deadline for opt-out registration at Driver Services facilities, which would make registration “automatic” for a huge number of Illinois voters. If implementation had been proper and timely, eligible voters would have been automatically registered for the November 6, 2018 election, as well as municipal elections in early 2019.
The Voting Rights Project has testified on several occasions about the importance of strong, timely, and community-centered implementation of AVR. On December 13, 2018, we joined members of the Just Democracy coalition in sending a letter to the Secretary of State’s office outlining the agency’s violations of state and federal law. The letter gives the Secretary of State’s office 90 days to respond with concrete steps before we initiate litigation.
AVR in the media:
➡ EDITORIAL: Attention Illinois, don’t let up on automatic voter registration (Chicago Sun-Times | 9/25/2018)
➡ Critics say Illinois is slow to implement law (Rockford Register Star | 12/18/2018)
➡ White faces pressure over voter registration rollout (Chicago Daily Law Bulletin | 12/27/2018)
Election Day Registration (EDR)
The Voting Rights Project was an instrumental part of passing Election Day Registration into law in Illinois in 2015. 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 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. U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan granted a motion blocking Election Day registration at Illinois polling places before the November general election, but that same October, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit stayed and later vacated the district court decision. In May of 2018, the district court entered the voluntary dismissal of Harlan v Scholtz, closing the case.
In the 2016 general elections, Illinois residents from every county participated in Election Day Registration, a critical tool for civic empowerment and access to the vote. Around 121,000 eligible persons in all state counties registered and voted using EDR during the 2016 general election. Thousands of voters across the state used EDR in 2018.
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 in Gill v. Whitford alleging that the Wisconsin state legislative districts are a partisan gerrymander. On December 17, a federal three-judge panel 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.
The state appealed this case to the Supreme Court. On June 18, 2018, the Supreme Court issued a decision that seemed to re-emphasize that partisan gerrymandering should not stand, but sent Gill v. Whitford back down for further proceedings on a legal technicality. 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 (now a Magistrate Judge) 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?
May 23, 2018 - Public comments by Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights before representatives of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, Illinois State Board of Elections, and the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office during a hearing on the implementation of Automatic Voter Registration (AVR)
May 1, 2018 - Testimony by Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and other leaders of the Just Democracy Illinois coalition before the Illinois House Elections & Campaign Finance Committee detailing the coalition's concerns about reported delays in the implementation of Automatic Voter Registration (AVR)
April 11, 2018 - Testimony by Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, Chicago Votes, Common Cause Illinois, and Illinois Coalition for Immigrant & Refugee Rights before the Illinois House Elections & Campaign Finance Committee in support of Senate Bill 2273
April 11, 2018 - Testimony by Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights before the Illinois House Elections & Campaign Finance Committee in support of House Bill 4469
April 4, 2018 - Testimony by Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Matthew J. Owens of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, P.C. before the Indiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
February 7, 2018 - Civil Rights and Voting in Illinois
Data and testimony from Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights is cited throughout a briefing report of the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
November 20, 2017 - Chicago Lawyers’ Committee joined with the Just Democracy Illinois coalition in submitting public comments to the Illinois State Board of Elections (SBE) during a hearing on the implementation of the new automatic voter registration (AVR) law.
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
The Daily Line: Illinois quits controversial voter ‘Crosscheck’ program | January 23, 2019
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: White faces pressure over voter registration rollout | December 27, 2018
Rockford Register Star: Critics say Illinois is slow to implement law | December 18, 2018
The State Journal-Register: Nearly 187,000 use automatic voter registration | December 18, 2018
The 21st: Democrats Sweep Statewide Offices, Pick Up Two U.S. House Seats In Illinois | November 7, 2018
Chicago Tribune: Make it to your polling place on Election Day and get told you can't vote? Here's what to do | November 5, 2018
Chicago Defender: Who To Call About Your Right To Vote | October 31, 2018
ABA Journal: Disabled people under guardianship often lose voting rights | October 8, 2018
Chicago Tribune: 'This is what the league does': League of Women Voters forum headed to Oak Park library | September 11, 2018
Capitol Fax: Election Day Registration lawsuit finally dismissed | May 22, 2018
The 21st Show: Primary Day Is Tomorrow: The Gubernatorial Candidates, Fact-Checking, And Your Voting Rights | March 19, 2018
Univision Chicago: Centro de ayuda a votantes estará habilitado durante toda la jornada electoral de este martes | March 19, 2018
CBS Chicago: Some Voters Are Getting Shaming Letters | March 19, 2018
Harrisburg Register: Election protection available for early voting period | March 8, 2018
Marion Republic: Election protection available for early voting period | March 8, 2018
Carbondale Times: Election protection available for early voting period | March 8, 2018
Northern Public Radio: Coalition Offers Election Protection For Voting In Illinois Primaries | March 5, 2018
SJNN: Concerns mount over implementation of Illinois’ historic automatic voter registration law | December 14, 2017
The Washington Post: Voter advocates push Illinois to exit multistate database | October 21, 2017
Chicago Tribune: Deerfield church event includes advocacy resource fair | October 20, 2017
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