The mission of the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago is to administer a transparent, impartial and accurate election system. This includes managing voter registrations; safeguarding the rights of all voters to cast ballots independently in a safe and quiet atmosphere, free of interference or intimidation; and informing voters of all of their balloting options, such as Election Day voting, Early Voting and Vote By Mail. The Board serves as the quasi-judicial arm of the courts directly responsible for performing all statutory duties under federal and state election codes.
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During the late 1800s, election reform movements swept through major urban centers across the country. Some of the reforms focused on keeping elected officials from having control over the electoral franchise and placing election management and administration under independent election professionals. In the 1880s in Chicago, civic leaders led the campaign for these reforms. Among the leaders of the electoral-reform movement was Chicago Tribune Editor-In-Chief Joseph Medill, who also had served as the mayor of the city immediately after the Chicago Fire.
The most common election reform model involved the creation of an independent Board of Election Commissioners, whose members could neither be elected officials nor participate in political campaigns. Under this system of election administration, a Board of Election Commissioners may serve as an extension of the Judicial branch of the government - the same branch of government also involved in deciding other election matters, such as whether candidates qualify for the ballot and post-election recounts.
At the urging of civic leaders, Sprinfield lawmakers approved a law in 1885 that gave the voters in any Illinois municipality the ability to conduct a referendum to create a local Board of Election Commissioners. As the City of Chicago was still comprised of townships, separate referenda were conducted in each township. Overwhelming majorities of voters in every Chicago township voted to create one Board of Election Commissioners for the entire city.
Cook County became like many other major jurisdictions in the United States: an Election Board managing voter registration and election administration in the central city, with an elected County Clerk managing such operations in the suburban areas.
The three members of the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago are appointed by the Cook County Circuit Court to three-year terms. In a 3-year cycle, one Commissioner's term expires each year. By law, the Board membership must include at least one member from each of the state's two leading political parties. Based on ballots cast in primary elections, those parties are the Democratic and Republican parties. A prospective Commissioner's political affiliation is determined by his or her record for selecting ballots at Primary Elections.
The Chicago Election Board oversees one of the largest election operations in the United States with approximately 1.5 million registered voters in 2,069 precincts, more precincts than the State of Iowa.
The Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago sets policies for the agency and manages the activities of the Executive Director related to voter registration programs and election management, equipment, budgeting, purchasing and human resources. Serving also as the Electoral Board, the Commissioners also decide matters related to which candidates qualify for the ballot for all City offices. The Electoral Board also determines ballot access in state legislative and Congressional districts that are entirely within Cook County if any portion of the districts are in Chicago. Electoral Board decisions can be appealed in the Courts.
In most years, the Board administers two citywide elections. The Board staff of approximately 130 full-time employees maintain the records, program equipment and make preparations throughout the year. Central to the Board activities are year-round preparations so that the agency can train and deploy 15,000 temporary poll workers to serve in the polling places on Election Day and report election results after the polls close. Under the direction of the Board and its Executive Director, the full-time staff oversee: the management of voter registration systems; mapping systems for precincts and districts; preparation of the ballots; designation and renting of polling places; hiring and training of judges of election, poll workers and investigators; management of the warehouse; programming, testing and shipping of election equipment to and from the polling places; and reporting, canvassing and archiving all election results and related data from each election.
-- At the March 2020 Primary, Chicago set new records for Early Voting and Vote By Mail for a Primary Election. For the first time, Early Voting and Vote By Mail accounted for 45% of all ballots cast in the city.
-- To address pandemic concerns at the March 2020 Primary, the Chicago Election Board obtained special court orders to protect senior facilities and utilize Early Voting sites on Election Day. Voter turnout in the city was 9 percentage points higher than the state average.
-- At the February 2019 Municipal Election, setting a record low number for Provisional Ballots with fewer than 2,400 among more than 557,000 ballots cast. At the same time, voters set new Municipal-Election records for use of Early Voting and Vote By Mail.
-- From 2016 through 2019, consistently having 29% or more of the ballots cast through Early Voting and Vote By Mail.
-- At the November 2018 General Election, setting an all-time high of 116,000 applications to Vote By Mail while realizing the highest turnout at a Mid-Term in 36 years with 61% turnout, 1.25 times the 48% turnout at the previous Mid-Term.
-- At the November 2016 General Election, more than 100,000 people applied to use "no-excuse" vote by mail, and more than 90,000 ballots were returned. This was Chicago's largest number of mailed ballots since World War II.
-- At the November 2016 General Election, Chicago set a new record with nearly 344,000 people using Early Voting and Grace-Period Registration/Voting ahead of Election Day.
-- At the March 2016 Primary and again at the November 2016 General Election, more than 33,000 Chicago voters used Election Day Registration, more than any other jurisdiction in Illinois.
-- In March 2014, the Board became the first large jurisdiction in the state of Illinois to deploy electronic poll books at every precinct. This move paved the way for Election Day Registration, a reform that the Board supported and which became law in 2015.
-- The Board championed the introduction of online voter registration. Once it was introduced in 2014, Chicago voters consistently have led the way in use of this efficient, accurate and secure way of registering to vote. Even before the state allowed paperless online registrations, the Chicago Election Board was the only jurisdiction to offer the next best alternative: the ability for the voter to submit information online and then receive a postage-paid pre-printed card to sign and return.
The Board consistently reports election results in real-time with approximately 90% of precincts reported before 10 p.m. on Election Nights. By 2 a.m. Wednesday, precinct-by-precinct detail is available on the Board's web site.
-- The Board leads the United States of America in engaging young people in the administration of elections. In each citywide election, the Board trains and deploys 4,000 high school and college students to serve as Judges of Election and Polling Place Administrators to trouble-shoot equipment. The Board's success in recruiting and training high-school students owes greatly to a successful partnership with Mikva Challenge, an award-winning not-for-profit organization.
-- The Board successfully lobbied for laws that: once again require high school graduates to complete a civics class, and to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections where they will be 18 by the following General Election.
-- The Board has led the State of Illinois in the consistent and successful lobbying for reforms to safeguard the voting rights of military personnel and civilians stationed overseas. The Board urged the change that today allows military and other overseas ballots to arrive up to 14 days after the Election and still be counted. The Board currently wants state and federal lawmakers to allow all overseas voters, particularly those in the military, to have the option of submitting voted ballots through a secured fax.
-- The Board consistently delivers thousands of ballots to military and overseas civilians electronically, ahead of federal deadlines. As a result, several military and overseas civilians are routinely the first Chicagoans to vote in each election, ahead of the start of in-person Early Voting.
-- The Board made one of the more successful transitions to optical scan and touch screen balloting systems. Although the first election with the new equipment revealed challenges in the transmission of results, the successful use of receiving stations and polling place administrators resolved those issues - and became the models for other jurisdictions in addressing these same matters. Throughout this transition with the new equipment, and in elections conducted since then, the accuracy of all ballot tabulations has been upheld in all recounts and audits.
-- The Board created a web site that provides voters with greater access to election information, including comprehensive information about each voter's registration status, their polling place, their election districts and even the real-time status of any absentee ballot application.
-- The Board has consistently championed the cause of multi-lingual voter assistance. The Chicago Election Board was the first election jurisdiction in the United States to launch a web site that could be navigated entirely in English, Spanish, Chinese, Polish and Hindi.
-- The Board regularly leads the State of Illinois in participation rates for newer balloting options that include Early Voting, Grace Period Voting and "no-excuse" Vote by Mail.
-- The Board employs a GPS tracking system to help assure the accurate delivery of election supplies to each precinct with the paper ballots and touchscreens that are programmed specifically for that precinct.
-- The Board created on-line training programs for Judges of Election and Polling Place Administrators.
-- The Board was the first agency in the State of Illinois to provide a comprehensive and transparent system for logging and reporting all Election Day calls related to voter questions and concerns and how those problems are addressed.
-- The Board engineered an automated system to assure the accurate and timely processing of candidate objections, particularly those related to questions about the authenticity of voter signatures on petitions. Now, the Board's judgment calls are logged in a computer program so that a clear record is available if any challenge goes to Court.
-- The Board successfully lobbied for a series of Election Calendar reforms to assure that candidates and voter-objectors have more time to settle ballot issues in the event that any case is appealed in the courts. Were it not for this change, petition filing would have occurred a month later in mid-December, and objections would not begin to be heard until January.
-- In the 1970s, the Board was the first agency in the state to utilize Hearing Officers to streamline the evidentiary hearings on candidate objections. This system allows the Board to process hundreds of cases simultaneously while building comprehensive records in the event there is a need for judicial review.
-- In recognition of the Board's history for accurate and timely processing of candidate objection cases, the General Assembly expanded the Board's role to include oversight of petition objections for all State Legislative and Congressional Districts that span both the City and Suburban Cook County.
-- To ensure transparency for all parties involved, the Board was the first agency in the state to create an instructional program on how to navigate the petition objection process and to offer candidates and other participants reference tools like the "Index Of Electoral Board Decisions" sorted by topic and a "Library of Electoral Board Decisions" from 1980 to present.
-- To help assure the accuracy of petition signature challenges, the Board was the first agency in the state to employ handwriting experts.
-- The Chicago Election Board is proud of consistently consulting with voters, community groups, watchdog organizations, civic leaders, the news media and political organizations to seek and employ the best practices in election administration and to deliver important information to voters in a timely manner.
-- Even as new mandates, under federal and state laws, have added to the cost of administering elections, the Board has strived to contain and reduce costs wherever possible. Key areas of cost containment have involved a combination of automation and reductions in staff through natural attrition, reducing full-time staff in recent years from 170 to 130.