Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Actually Voting in Illnois

I grew up in Wisconsin, where it is very easy to vote. You show up at the polls with some proof of your address, and you vote. Then I moved to Minnesota, where it was much the same.

Now I live in Illinois. It's harder to vote here. You have to register in advance. And, as my wife found out today, your registration can be rendered "inactive" by some bureaucrat without notice. If you show up to the local polling place with this "inactive" registration, you will be turned away. [BUT SEE UPDATE.]

Here's the story, set forth in emails between me and the Cook County clerk's office.

I'm writing on behalf of my wife [name and address omitted from Google's prying eyes].  
Today she went to vote early because she will be out of the state on Election Day. After waiting in line for a half-hour, she learned that her registration had gone "inactive." 
This is rather bizarre. She and I moved to Evanston (from Minnesota) on the same day in 2010 and registered to vote for the elections that year. We did vote in 2010. We have both done the same things and taken the precise same steps to maintain registration. Yet, at this moment, my registration is active (according to the Board of Elections website) and hers is supposedly inactive. 
My questions for you: (1) How can this possibly be? And, (2) Why would a citizen be unceremoniously dropped from the rolls of registered voters? 
Obviously, this is infuriating, so I await your prompt reply. 
Bart Torvik
The response:
Mr. Torvik, 
We are required to keep up to date records and one way we do this is to canvass voters each year. Your wife's canvass card was returned to us by the USPS saying they could not deliver it. When this happens we send a second card and, if that also fails, the voter is NOT "unceremoniously dropped from our records" instead we make the record inactive. 
All your wife has to do to reactivate her registration and vote is to show two (2) pieces of ID that show that she still lives at [address] when she goes to vote.
Note that the clerk's statement that all she had to do was show up with two pieces of ID to get reactivated is untrue, as she was turned away from the polling place and directed to drive to the county courthouse in another city despite having two pieces of ID on hand. Perhaps that is the law, but that was not how it was implemented at her polling place. [SEE UPDATE BELOW.]

My reply:
Thank you for your reply.

Honestly, it is hard to believe that the canvas card was returned as undeliverable (twice!). My wife receives mail at our house every day, including official government mail. For example, she was summoned to grand jury duty last year by U.S. mail directed to that address. It is interesting, to say the least, that mail imposing the burdens of citizenship reached its destination but mail permitting the basic right of citizenship did not. 
Perhaps you should investigate your mailing procedures.

Thank you again for the reply.
The story has a happy ending. My wife drove to the county courthouse (located in a different city), reactivated her registration, and voted. But the infuriating truth remains that incompetence—either by the state government or the federal government (postal service)—made it significantly more difficult for her to vote. If she hadn't been voting early, and had to do all this on Election Day, it's likely her vote would have been suppressed.

Voting should not be burdened because of another's incompetence. And when it is impinged for any reason, the citizen should at least be notified of the impingement. In our legal system, notice is a fundamental concept. For example, one cannot get a claim of any kind on another's property without notifying them of the claim. Given that, I think it is ridiculous that a registered voter's right to exercise the franchise can be fettered without any actual notice whatsoever.


I sent another email to the clerk's office telling them that my wife was in fact turned away from the polling place. The clerk confirmed that this should not have happened and promised to contact the polling place and alert the election judge training department.


  1. Three cheers for your tenacity and your wife's! One of the challenges of any bureaucracy is the near impossibility of distinguishing nonfeasance from malfeasance, incompetence from machination, imperfection (inevitable) from remediable flaw. It's hard enough to figure out when dealing with an actual human being, let alone a "department" or some other nebulous entity.


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