Despite the global Covid-19 pandemic, over 1 million Chicagoans voted early for this year’s election which was three times higher than in 2016. Such voter turnout is partly due to consistent community organizing which, for example, engaged Muslim communities as they represent 2% of the Chicago population: encouraging these communities to vote was a priority, despite various challenges.

Due to the importance of the 2020 presidential election, the urge to vote became even more important but, for disenfranchised communities, the Covid-19 pandemic added difficult circumstances which created unseen challenges. In Illinois, various organizations mobilized local communities to help them overcome voting difficulties: this led to a much higher voter turnout than in the previous elections.

The additional challenge of the pandemic

According to Ami Gandhi, Senior Counsel at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, many voters were concerned about “How can I exercise my right to vote in a safe manner?” but were also concerned about myths regarding ‘voter fraud’. She explained that while there has always been a possibility to vote by mail in Illinois, many people felt discouraged this year because of the widely spread false narrative that mail-in ballots could lead to fraud: “the exaggerated concerns about voter fraud, for example, made some people reluctant about whether their vote would be counted or whether it even felt worthwhile to go through the effort of voting, particularly if it was an unfamiliar process for someone.” 

She adds that because the registration system is not automatic, “there are large numbers of voters who are eligible to vote but not yet registered, and in Illinois that disparity is even more pronounced for communities of color including Black, Latino, and Asian American citizens.” 

Some communities also face language barriers and, even if they know English, they might still need assistance to understand the complicated jargon on the ballot. But, this should not stop them from voting because “federal civil rights laws say that they are entitled to such assistance, and so we [Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights] are one of the organizations that tries to enforce those legal protections.” 

According to IL Muslim Civic Coalition Executive Director Reema Kamran and Director of Voter Organizing Yusuf Vidal, this year was especially unique because of how Covid-19 increased their amount of stress and work: “it’s no secret that the hardest hit community when it came to […] testing at positive higher rates were Black and Brown communities, so we wanted to make sure that our approach was not just effective and impactful but also kept the wellness and health of those that we were trying to engage with in mind.” 

Similarly, at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the pandemic posed unique challenges to lawyers who were not able to provide as much in person assistance as they used to, but they still noticed a tremendous voter participation. They undertook an approach to help voters based on voter preferences and served “as a resource to hopefully calm and reassure voters of the many options available to them whether it was voting in person or voting by mail or participating in early voting.” 

According to Chicago Votes Communication Associate Katrina Phidd, Covid-19 also allowed for more misinformation to be spread and, for example, there were “some robo calls going around particularly in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, which is a predominantly Black African American area of Chicago, and these robot calls were spreading misinformation about elections. And, misinformation is a form of voter suppression that a lot of people don’t think about.” 

The IL Muslim Civic Coalition had to counter similar situations as voters were told that their vote would be considered fraud with mail-in ballots. Knowing that this was, for many, the safest option to vote, there was a need to first educate voters on how to vote by mail and then on how it was as important as a vote in person, adding more work and challenges for organizations engaging local communities and more insecurity for voters from these communities. Also, the Cook County Republican Party tried to stop the expansion of mail-in ballots, claiming that it would be abused and, even though the Court eventually ruled against it, it still caused serious uncertainty among voters that needed to be reassured afterwards.

According to Reema Kamran, such misinformation, in a context where things are constantly evolving, creates a distrust “especially for communities that have historically been distrustful of the whole process so you are creating this culture of distrust.” It was then crucial to work towards empowering these communities’ voices to convince them that “even now, voting is an important way that you will be able to change, long term, for the better of our communities.”

Adjusting strategies to engage local communities better

In order to successfully engage voters this year, tactics had to change to a more remote organizing. IL Muslim Civic Coalition, for example, noticed a “digital divide” within the Chicago population and, therefore, not everyone was able to attend virtual events. Alongside phone and text bankings, volunteers also created socially distanced places in these communities to create opportunities to meet everyone, from non-citizens to voting leaders: “trying to cover this whole spectrum of voters is difficult, especially in an environment where you have Covid.” 

While providing food, masks, hand sanitizer, back to school drives, volunteers provided information on the voting process and stressed the importance of voting. And, instead of canvassing they used “lit drops” with simple information on how to register, cast a ballot, or general information on the election which was accompanied by phone calls or texts: that way, there were more chances that community members actually received the information. 

Chicago Votes also had to shift their in person tactics to an online format and, because their main target is the youth, they  extensively used Twitter and Instagram to share information. They also held “virtual happy hour events” as part of their #GiveAShit program: “they were places where we really merged culture and politics to create spaces where young people could come and have fun, share what they want, wear what they want, do what they want, but talk about politics.” 

Overall, they adjusted their message based on issues people were facing and ensured they had access to all the information necessary to fit their lifestyles: “based on the numbers, […] and through efforts of the Board of Election and public education efforts, people felt confident and had the resources they needed to ensure their ballots was counted.” 

Similarly, IL Muslim Civic Coalition ensured that voters could vote in safe ways and that the information was available in languages such as Urdu and Arabic, and worked with partners to provide it in Spanish and other languages. Despite the difficulty of the pandemic, the local communities were still able to receive the same information, just in a different format, which highly engaged them in this election.

Creating a safe space to engage these communities was also a priority. As Katrina Phidd explained, the “happy hour events” aimed to merge the culture, art, and creativity that people care about to “challenge the status quo” and use a different approach to engage with politics: “One of our happy hours was around fashion, so we highlighted local designers in Chicago and stylists and what their fashion means to them when it comes to their identity and how they show it to the world. Our other one highlighted a number of artists […] and all of their music and works of art somehow uplifted some aspect of civics, whether it was explicit or not.” 

IL Muslim Civic Coalition especially focused on centering the voices of the communities by using “Voter Stories” where people “would talk about why do they vote and why voting is important […] from ‘I have the right to vote and I am invested in this country’s present and future’ to ‘I vote because our community needs representation’” to which members of the community identified. 

Its various partners and allies, including places of worship and faith centers, also played an important role in centering these voices through, for example, the #CantStopTheVote campaign which helped reach out more effectively to local communities: “shifting, instead of being more event-focused, to be more focused on centering the voices of the community and their needs so that we can meet them at where they are.”

Some important challenges to overcome

Because of issues with various polling stations, IL Muslim Civic Coalition was for example watching polling stations in key locations to prevent issues present during the primaries: “over 45 voting locations on the primary election day did not even open on time, which means that those are the folks who are working 2 jobs and the only time they have is to go at 6 in the morning and probably did not get a chance to vote, and probably will not be able to come back because they have other responsibilities, other priorities in their lives.” Another issue regarding polling stations is that, as Katrina Phidd explained, there were many concerns about polling stations being located at police stations which can disenfranchise voters, especially Black communities, as they will feel unsafe to vote in a police station. 

Another challenge was at the Cook County Jail where, as Ami Gandhi explained, many community members in pre-trial detention —accused of a crime but not convicted— face various practical barriers to voting. But, after perseverance and legislation, a polling station was maintained inside the jail and detainees eligible to vote were able to cast their ballot. According to Katrina Phidd, incarceration can also cause a form of voter suppression and it is important that people know that everyone released from prison in Illinois receives peer-taught civics classes and has their right to vote restored.

Another challenge, common across the country, is that many voters were not convinced by the presidential candidates. Chicago Votes is non-partisan but emphasized that voting goes beyond the election day and helped voters make the best decisions for themselves regardless of their political affiliation: “you can’t just vote for a candidate and expect everything to change, civics and being engaged in politics is so much more than voting. […] How are you gonna hold this elected official accountable outside of elections to ensure they really push your platform with them?” 

IL Muslim Civic Coalition is likewise non-partisan and focused, instead, on the other important elements of the ballot such as the amendment for the graduated income tax: “There are so many different stakeholders that play so many different roles, so we just wanted to make sure that folks understood what that was and were ready to be able to vote to complete their ballot.” 

After Election Day

IL Muslim Civic Coalition reported a 8-10% increase in voter turnout, which shows a changing civic culture, as well as 108,514 calls, 2,628 homes canvassed, and 40 voter engagement jobs created according to their 2020 Impact Report. For 2021, the Coalition aims to pass four bills including the Muslim Contributions Bill and Bias Based Bullying Bill, continue working on the IL Muslims Report, and build Civic Leadership Capacity.

Chicago Votes reported a high record of mail-in ballots and will continue to engage the youth in 2021, by especially pushing several pieces of legislation that make “engaging in civic rights and responsibilities more accessible to people that have been impacted by the legal system.” This includes the Jury Qualifications Act (ensuring that nobody is barred from serving in a jury solely for having a criminal record) and the End Prison Slave Labor Act (to extend the state minimum wage to people detained and working in prison).

Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights reported receiving a breaking record of 1,500 calls from Illinois and Indiana voters just on Election Day and directed voters to various polling stations. For 2021, the organization will focus on the Illinois suburban municipal elections by continuing to engage local communities and ensure they have all the information necessary to exercise their right to vote.

But, despite a higher voter turnout, there is still a strong need to maintain the energy that came out during this election to ensure that voters remain engaged on a more local level and to keep politicians accountable: voting goes beyond the presidential election and its candidates.

More resources on Election Protection in Illinois can be found here and by calling the free hotline 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) or 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682) for Spanish and 844-YALLA-US (844-925-5287) for Arabic.