For the first time, Illinois residents this year will be allowed to register to vote at their polling place on Election Day.
This is a good thing. No longer will voters have to worry about missing the deadline to switch their registration if they move.
It’s all part of the effort in recent years to make it easier for people to cast a ballot, even as they increasingly choose not to do so.
But Election Day voter registration is also an added complication that has the people who run elections making extra preparations and holding their breath to be sure everything runs smoothly at the polling place.
Some of you may remember that a pilot program in 2014 for Election Day voter registration resulted in ridiculously long lines for voters at the handful of city locations where it was offered.
One North Side polling place had to remain open past 2 a.m. to accommodate the onslaught, causing some voters to cast their ballots long after results of major contests were known.
City election officials say there should be no repeat of that breakdown in the March 15 primary.
Between the traditionally lower turnout of a primary election and spreading out those voters seeking to register over the city’s 2,069 precincts, there is far less likelihood of a polling place logjam.
Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said every city precinct will have two tables of election personnel instead of the normal one table on March 15, with the added table dedicated to Election Day voter registration. Each precinct will also be equipped with two electronic poll books listing voter information.
The idea, of course, is to help the people just trying to vote to avoid getting stuck in line behind somebody going through the slightly more complicated task of trying to register.
“We just don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Allen said. “We’re going to be interested in analyzing the numbers.”
Cook County Clerk David Orr said suburban polling places will stick with one line for everybody. He said judges already are used to dealing with many voters who think they’re registered but aren’t.
In Milwaukee, where Election Day registration has been the law since 1975, one in five voters register in their polling place on Election Day, said Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission.
They tend to be people from “economically challenged” parts of the city who move often and otherwise would not have an opportunity to vote, Albrecht said.
One of the requirements of Election Day voter registration in Illinois is that you have to register in your home precinct, which you can find at www.chicagoelections.com if you’d rather not ask your neighbor. Those living in the Cook County suburbs can find their polling places at www.cookcountyclerk.com.
To register to voter, you need to bring two pieces of identification, one of which shows your current address. A photo ID is not required but can be helpful. Other acceptable forms of identification are listed at the websites I’ve mentioned.
Allen said those who are already registered should consider early voting or voting by mail this year if they want to avoid the possibility of an Election Day hassle.
“That would be my recommendation,” he said.
Orr said voters should keep in mind that they can also register to vote now at any early voting site through what is known as grace-period registration. Voter registration previously was cut off 30 days before an election, just when some voters start paying attention.
I’m sure some people will be concerned that Election Day voter registration could lead to voter fraud by individuals trying to vote more than once at different locations.
That’s certainly a possibility, although if they got caught so much as trying, they’d be looking at a felony.
Allen said there are precautions in place to keep an individual from hopscotching from precinct to precinct.
But as he always likes to remind me, “we have a hard enough time getting people to vote once.”
Milwaukee’s Albrecht notes that national studies have shown that there’s no higher incidence of vote fraud among those registering on Election Day than registering at any other time.
I believe in doing what we can to stimulate voter participation. Increasing the number of voters doesn’t lead to smarter voting, but it makes the results easier to swallow.