Early voting begins in Illinois. Here’s why access is better here than some other states.

Next to Indiana and Wisconsin, the state has less strict requirements for voter identification, absentee ballots and same-day registration.

Samantha Jones, left, and Peter Vina take selfies near the Michael Jordan statue in Chicago on Election Day in 2020. Early voting in the June 28 primary starts in much of Illinois Thursday. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP File Photo
Samantha Jones, left, and Peter Vina take selfies near the Michael Jordan statue in Chicago on Election Day in 2020. Early voting in the June 28 primary starts in much of Illinois Thursday. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP File Photo

Early voting begins in Illinois. Here’s why access is better here than some other states.

Next to Indiana and Wisconsin, the state has less strict requirements for voter identification, absentee ballots and same-day registration.

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As early voting begins Thursday in the Illinois primary (except in Chicago which begins May 31 and Cook County which begins June 1), voters in the state can cast their ballots earlier — and with greater ease — than those in neighboring states. Residents voting in the upcoming 2022 elections — which includes a hotly contested gubernatorial race — are fortunate that Illinois leads the Midwest in voting access, civil liberties advocates say.

But those voting rights advocates also say Illinois is an outlier in the Midwest.

They are concerned about the tightening of voting restrictions in neighboring states, which is curbing access and could depress voter turnout by the thousands.

“Illinois is a site of innovation when it comes to bold ideas for voter access and innovations of the election system,” said Ami Gandhi, senior counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Gandhi added that as Illinois lawmakers continue to introduce legislation expanding access, it’s in stark contrast to states like Georgia and Texas, which have gained notoriety for enacting laws that limit ballot drop boxes, criminalize certain things like bringing water to voting precincts, enforcing greater restrictions on voting by mail and, Gandhi said, generally creating unsafe and intimidating conditions — with new rules for poll watchers — at election sites. Lawsuits alleging that these laws violate the Voting Rights Act are ongoing in both states.

But even closer to Illinois, voting rights advocates are closely watching surrounding states like Wisconsin and Indiana that recently introduced legislation restricting access under the premise that election security and unsubstantiated widespread voter fraud put election results in question.

“It’s a continual question in the United States of who gets to vote, which is a sort of proxy for the question, ‘Who is a real American?’ ” said Rebecca Glenberg, senior supervising attorney at the ACLU of Illinois. “When you make it harder to vote, you are almost always affecting particular segments of the population, [who] get the message that they’re not valued as voters, their voices are not valued in our democracy.”

Here is how voters in Illinois can have a much different experience at the ballot box than voters in Wisconsin and Indiana:


In Illinois, early voting for the June 28 primary begins on May 19 — 40 days before Election Day, almost double the national average.

The state offers no-excuse absentee voting, allowing residents to order ballots for any reason, to be mailed-in or deposited in drop boxes —a holdover from the pandemic that allows voters to avoid potentially crowded polling locations.

Illinois is also one of 21 states to offer same-day registration on Election Day, and, beginning in 2018, implemented automatic voter registration at state offices.

What’s more, Illinois does not enforce voter ID laws, which require residents to produce identification such as a voter registration card or lease agreement, and, in some cases, a government-issued photo ID. As of this year, 35 states in the U.S. maintain voter ID laws and have been widely criticized by civil rights advocates for disproportionately excluding low-income and racial minorities, the elderly and those with disabilities.

Despite some efforts to cast less-restrictive states such as Illinois as potential hot-beds for election-related fraud, data definitively disputes that, officials say. Only five cases of voter fraud in the 2020 general election have been identified and prosecuted, out of a total of 6 million votes cast in Illinois, according to Matthew Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.


In Indiana, in-person early voting opens 28 days before Election Day, and voter registration ends 29 days before the election.

Last year, a federal appellate court struck down a state law that allowed the state to purge voter registration rolls. From 2016-2018, more than 28% of Indiana voters were purged from registration lists, many never being notified, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Additionally, Indiana has long maintained one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail systems in the country, according to Gandhi. An attempt by some Indiana state lawmakers to require voters swear under penalty of perjury that they could not vote in person early was eventually squashed.

Advocates say they are continuously challenging the state’s legislative efforts like that proposal which are intended to make voting more restrictive. The final version of the bill Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law requires voters to submit their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number to apply for an absentee ballot.

“We certainly haven’t gone the direction of states like Illinois in adopting … efforts to really be inclusive when it comes to encouraging folks to vote,” said Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana, a D.C.-based nonprofit civic organization. “Rather than addressing our abysmal voter turnout statistics, rather than working to make voting more accessible, more standardized across the state, loosening some of our very stringent voting restrictions, we’ve instead seen things go the other way.”

Vaughn notes that proponents of more restrictive voting laws routinely cite election fraud in arguments for tightened restrictions, though there is little evidence to support this.

“If we had evidence of a problem, that’d be one thing, and it would be another thing if we didn’t rank so darn low in terms of turnout,” said Vaughn, noting that Indiana had a comparatively low voter turnout compared to other states in the 2020 general election. “Instead of erecting more barriers, let’s try tearing down some of those barriers so more Hoosiers will participate.”

Wisconsin voting
People line up to vote outside the Greenfield Community Center, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Greenfield, Wis. Morry Gash / AP File Photo


In Wisconsin, early voting begins 14 days before Election Day. The state does offer same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots, though the fate of drop boxes installed during the pandemic is being challenged in court.

Wisconsin also maintains strict voter ID laws that require residents to show a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license, passport, naturalization certificate or similar documentation before casting a ballot. The state does offer free voter IDs to residents.

Enacted over 10 years ago, a 2017 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that more than 16,000 registered voters were likely deterred from voting in the 2016 November election due to the ID requirement. Many of those deterred were likely low-income and minority voters, according to the study.

In addition to proposals that would have tightened access — including ballot drop box removal and more restrictions for formerly incarcerated residents — lawmakers attempted to enact legislation that would have changed the way state elections function.

In February — half a year into a GOP-ordered, taxpayer-funded probe investigating the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election — legislation was introduced to dissolve the Wisconsin Elections Commission, a nonpartisan board that oversees state elections. Instead, a partisan state legislature would be tasked with election administration and certification. The bill did not pass.

“There are what I would consider to be a concerning number of folks in the legislature that see the outcome of the 2020 election as illegitimate and have concerns that there is fraud within those elections,” says Shaadie Ali, deputy executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “There are folks that think that in some way, shape or form we need to give the legislature more power to actually be in the business of deciding what is and isn’t a legitimate election.”

Ali added that there have been more than 45 proposed bills restricting voter access the ACLU of Wisconsin is concerned about.

While he said he is confident in the administration of elections, “when you have measures that disproportionately impact certain communities, especially people of color, disabled folks and folks in rural communities, as a lot of these bills do, it makes it harder to say that the outcomes of these elections are representative of the demographics of the state.”

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, fewer than 100 cases of voter fraud were prosecuted in the 2020 general election, out of a total of 3 million votes cast.

What’s next for Illinois?

Though Illinois leads the Midwest in voting access, advocates such as Gandhi say that this progress is the result of years of hard-fought victories organized between advocates, community members and government officials. And for many voting advocacy organizations, the work is far from over.

“In Illinois, we have seen improvements on the front of trying to reduce racial disparities when it comes to [voter] disenfranchisement and coming to terms with the fact that an undue number of people in Illinois are disenfranchised because of involvement in the criminal legal system,” Gandhi said.

In 2019, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law a measure that is meant to ease voting access for those being detained in jail awaiting trial.

According to Katrina Phidd, communications manager for the civic engagement nonprofit Chicago Votes, “[the bill] makes it accessible because people in jail have the right to vote, but there was no policy in place to ensure the jail would work with people incarcerated to make sure they could vote.”

The Chicago Board of Elections reports that 1,753 votes were cast from the Cook County Jail during the 2020 general election.

There is also an effort to restore voting rights to individuals who are currently incarcerated in prison, but it has stalled in the Illinois statehouse.

Hannah Faris is an intern on WBEZ’s Government and Politics desk.