Editorial note: This is the first of our guest blogging, voting experience, essays. Betsy is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. RMA.
By Betsy Sinclair
Today I both registered and cast my Presidential General Election ballot — October 21, 2008 — courtesy of the ‘grace period registration and voting’ conducted by the Chicago Board of Elections. Grace period voting differs from early voting, absentee voting, and polling place voting in two ways: first, it is possible to simultaneously register and vote at the same time and second, it is only possible to do in person, at the Election Board, during a two-week window (October 8-21). With the regular registration deadline ending October 7th, the ‘grace period’ is intended to allow individuals who missed the deadline an opportunity to participate in the election.
After getting off on the elevator on the 6th floor at the Election Board, I was shocked. There was barely room to squeeze into the hallway. The crowd shouted to those of us getting off the elevator, “Two lines, registration on the right wall, voting on the left”. I got into the registration line. There wasn’t an election official in site. As I inched forward I took the opportunity to talk to some of my line-mates. I asked them why did they show up today?
Over and over again I got one of three answers. The first — they needed the grace period. Due to other things going on in their lives, they hadn’t been able to find the time to make it to a library or a post office and register to vote. These people didn’t seem to mind the long line — they said again and again that they knew it was risky waiting until the last day, in particular, of grace period voting. The second — convenience. People liked that they could both register and vote at the same time. They hadn’t anticipated there being much of a line, and had assumed this was the quickest way to get both registration and voting done at once. The third — the most interesting to me — was that people came for help. They weren’t sure if they had the right documentation, they didn’t know where to get the registration form, they thought they needed some kind of identification they didn’t have — in general, they didn’t know what the official requirements were for paperwork or identification to register, and they knew that during the grace period, someone would help them get it done.
Most of the people I met had heard about ‘grace period voting’ on the radio. They came to vote with friends and families. Over 3/4 of the people in line with me were first-time voters. Everyone talked about Obama.
Thirty minutes later I made it to the front of the line. The election officials were fairly flustered by the barage of people who had descended upon them. They regularly commented about how we all should have done this earlier. I registered after filling out a quick form and showing my phone bill and university identification card. I didn’t need a government-issued id. Then finally, I was out of the registration line and into the voting line.
The election officials were hard pressed to figure out what to do with the growing lines — they had filled the front office, the hallway, and it was no longer possible to open the elevators. Thus they opted to have the line go through the election staff offices! The line was organized so that no cubicle would be blocked by the line — we were to maintain little breaks in the line for each cubicle, so each worker could get out. The line snaked around all the cubicles. We filled the space. We waited. We looked at the gnomes and figurines on the staff desks. We listened in to the phone conversations as they answered election questions. We moved forward very, very slowly.
Periodically a women from the staff would march up and down the line. She would shout at us, “DO NOT PULL THE CARD OUT OF THE MACHINE. It is NOT like an ATM machine. If you pull the card out, you jam the machine. Then you will have to wait ten minutes to start over again. You do NOT want to have to start over again.” This ignited all sorts of comments from my line-mates. People were fairly surprised by the electronic voting machines — I overheard a fair number of comments asking, “A card for what? What do we need a card for? I don’t want to have to start over. Do we have to pay to vote?”.
Ninety minutes later I had my card, which I put into my voting machine. The ballot in Illinois this year is 15 pages long, filled mostly with judicial elections. I took my time, as did most of the people around me. I checked my printed receipt — which stays in the machine — before submitting my ballot. I returned my card to the election officials. There were approximately sixteen machines in the same room, set very close to each other, with the only privacy provided by small screens around the voting machine. While I was voting, at least one machine ‘went down’ and had to had to have it’s paper ream replaced. Several voters had asked the staff for help in navigating the machines.
Overall, I was impressed with ‘grace period’ registration and voting. The election officials clearly had not anticipated the number of people, but on the whole the staff were graceful. At the registration desk, a girl next to me told the clerk that she wasn’t sure she would be able to both vote and make it back to work on time. The clerk asked her to stick with them, that we needed her vote, and that every vote counted.
Grace period registration and voting ends tonight at 10 PM. When I left the Board of Elections at 4 PM, the staff reported they had already registered at least 1000 new individuals today alone — a number far beyond what they had expected, with lines still far out into the hallways and cubicles. Although I had paid $24 for parking, and spent two hours in line, I was glad to have come, as I found myself remarkably encouraged about democracy in America (and I had both registered and cast my ballot at the same time!). With the rise in convenience voting across America and the increased number of individuals who are turning out who do not have a history of participating in politics, this will be an election of historic participation rates. Let’s hope the counties have extra reams of paper, extra room for lines, and are ready for the new voters.