Election 2012: Board of Elections Turns to Web to Help Attract Young Voters

Jim Allen Photo
Jim Allen, communications director with the Chicago Board of
Elections, talks about the board's web page that allows people
to track their voter registration online.

By Jeff Kirk
The Red Line Project

Posted: Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012

A new online widget launched by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is designed to encourage young online-savvy Chicagoans to register to vote.

The idea is to get more young voters involved in the political process for the upcoming national election.

In 2010, Chicago started to see a decrease in voter registrations and participation among younger voters, which has led to Chicago returning to its pre-2008 status -- a majority of the city's voters are again 45 and older, as opposed to 44 and younger. The 2010 election cycle was not as strong in terms of participation among younger voters.

“Elections have turned significantly in the last several years on a couple of fronts,” said Jim Allen, the board’s communication director.  “We saw in 2008 an amazing groundswell of participation, especially among younger voters.”

Recognizing that potential young voters tend to do their business online or through their smartphones, the board set up the wizard as a way for people to access registration documents and track the progress of their registration.

The applicants fill out their information online and receive a printed application with their data already filled in. The applicant simply signs it and returns the form. The state of Illinois still requires a "wet signature" on an original registration form.

“It’s easy,” Allen said.

The wizard also offers the chances of the data being entered correctly as the registrants input their own data – reducting the chance of clerks incorrectly entering data as they transfer it over.

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners website is devoted to reaching out to voters of all ages. It hosts the site in English, Spanish, Polish, Chinese and Hindi.  The site can also be accessed through the Illinois Secretary of State and other local websites.

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners voter registration widget.

Sept. 25 is National Voter Registration Day and the deadline to register in Illinois is Oct. 9.  After Oct. 9, registrants must appear in person at 69 W. Washington Street, Sixth Floor. The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Chicago has approximately 1.7 million citizens of legal voting age.  Only 1.2 million are currently registered to vote.

When changes to the voting practice took effect in 2005, new paper ballots and touchscreens made for an easier voting process after a controversial national election in 2000, Allen said.

“You have to do your best to create a system that’s goof-proof that you can go out and verify,” he said.  “Hanging and swinging chads wasn’t cutting it.”

The changes helped Chicago go from a 7 percent undervote in the 2000 presidential race to 1 percent in 2008.

President Barack Obama’s campaign energized young voters in 2008 by being one of the first presidential elections to make significant use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In Chicago, 100,000 registrations took place the week before the 2008 elections.  College-aged kids drove the voting rush with 77 percent of late-voter registration applicants being between the ages of 18 and 35.

2008 marked the first time the majority of voters in Chicago were under the age of 44. But much of the excitement was gone when the numbers decreased for the 2010 local elections.

“If you don’t like your choices on the ballot do something about it,” Allen said. “You have the duty as a citizen to participate. It is your government.”

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