Americans treasure their democratic rights, but far too few of us use them fully.  In the recent November elections, only a few states held important polls, but even in those that did – for Governor in Virginia and in New Jersey, for example – only 1 out of 3, or even fewer, voters went to the polls.  In Virginia, at least, the results were close, and could have been different if more voters had used their right to cast a ballot. 

The usual voter turnout in Evanston is not much better.  In 2010, when there were strongly contested races for governor and senator, only one-quarter of registered voters in Cook County actually voted.  The year before that, Evanstonians voted for mayor, city clerk, and nine aldermen.  In contested races, about 1 in 4 went to the polls, and in uncontested races, a much smaller fraction.

In March 2014, Evanstonians will go to the polls for primary elections and a key referendum on the Township, and in November for major state, county and national offices, as well as important state ballot measures.  Several Evanston civic groups are launching an effort to transform our low voting levels and encourage expanded voter registration, greater voting participation, and broader engagement in the governmental process by all.

The effort will begin with a forum to highlight the importance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the impact of the June 2013 Supreme Court decision striking an important component of the act, and current efforts in some states to restrict voting.  The Forum reflects a common commitment to empowering voters, especially women and people of color, by four Evanston civic groups:  Delta Sigma Theta Sorority ENSA, League of Women Voters of Evanston, NAACP-Evanston and the YWCA Evanston/North Shore.

The forum will take place Saturday, Jan. 11, from 2 to 4 p.m., in the Community Room, Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington.  Speakers will be Ami Gandhi, executive director, South Asian American Policy and Research Institute; Ruth Greenwood, Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and George Mitchell, president, NAACP-Evanston Branch.  The moderator will be Evonda Thomas-Smith of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority ENSA.

The groups will provide voter registration at the Library for an hour before and an hour after the forum.  They will work together to register voters before the Primary election on March 18, and before the election in November.  This winter they will have deputy registrars available at the City Clerk’s Office on Jan. 16, at the Robert Crown Center on the days the Produce Mobile visits (Jan. 14 and Feb. 11) and at ETHS.  They will also be offering sessions to learn about candidates and issues in the spring.

A number of states in the past year have introduced or passed laws to restrict access to voting by reducing early voting periods or requiring identification, in spite of the fact that there is very little evidence of voter fraud anywhere.  Fortunately, Illinois is not one of those states, and in fact is working to make registration easier by using technology.  This summer Illinois will allow online voter registration for new voters or to update address changes.  Officials believe this will enhance the accuracy of the voter rolls and increase participation in elections. 

But registered voters still need to be motivated to go out and vote.  Why bother voting? Voting should be cherished because it is important to help choose elected officials and let officials know your preferences.  As a state, Illinois has many fiscal and social problems, and the Governor and legislators elected in November will be responsible for solving these problems.  In Evanston, the Mayor and aldermen we elected in 2012 set our tax rates and the price we all pay for water; they decide what kinds of new buildings will be constructed and what kind of services will be provided. 

A historic decision will be on the ballot in March, when Evanston voters can accept or reject a referendum to dissolve the Township and transfer Township programs to the City.

 All votes count.  We should never lose sight of that or of the power of the vote.