#601: The Bare Minimum Voting Guide

February 29th, 2016

I opened the door and a crisply printed cardstock flier featuring a handsome, smiling, toothy lawyer in a suit fluttered to the porch.

He wants to be my judge.

A bit under five minutes into my walk, my phone rang. It was a Chicago Teachers Union member telling me nice things about one of the people who wants to be my state senator.

Throughout my brief stroll, fliers were crammed under doorknobs, signs were stuck in yards and zip-tied to railings. People wanting to be my judges, state reps, committeemen, water reclamation district commissioners — a mess of slogans and pledges and six-pointed Chicago flag stars.

On March 15, voters will have to make sense of this mess.

This guide can help. It won’t make you an expert, just cover some bare minimum stuff you’ll need to get through the next two weeks.

The Basics

Should I vote?



Because you’re a goddamn grownup. Moving on.


How do I register to vote?

Starting today, Feb. 29, through March 14, you can register is in person at one of 51 Early Voting locations. You have to bring two IDs and vote while you’re there. There were other options, including online registration, but you missed them.

You can also register on Election Day, March 15, at your designated polling place.

Every single bit of information you need to do this — locations, times, acceptable IDs — can be found at this link right here.

Where do I vote on Election Day?

Click on this bolded passage here and put in your last name and address to find out a bunch of stuff, including where you should go to vote. There are Google Maps and stuff. They make it easy for you.

Who are the candidates?

The “bunch of stuff” referenced in the last question includes a tab marked Sample Ballot. Click on that tab and you’ll see some options for different party’s sample ballots. Democrat, Republican, Green in some spots.

Click your party and a little window will pop up showing all the people that will appear on your ballot.

This is specific to your ballot; it’s not just a list of all the candidates everywhere. The names are for your state rep, your precinct committeeman, your congressperson. If a name’s on the pop-up window, it’ll be staring you down on March 15 (or at one of 51 Early Voting locations, etc. etc. etc.).


How do I know which candidate to vote for?

Google them. Look up their websites, their policy and issue statements. See who endorsed them, from other politicians to unions to newspapers.

Only read reputable sources, ones you’ve heard of before. If you Google candidate Jane Gomez and the top two results are a Chicago Tribune editorial and JaneGomezKillsJobs.com, go with the Trib. The last one has a political opponent’s purse strings behind it.

This might seem a bit of work (and there are more research tips under the Advanced heading), but you are online right now. If you can see this sentence, you’re either holding or are within a few inches of a machine that can tell you everything you want to know about the people who will be creating and enforcing the laws that bind you.

All you have to do is type in the name of a candidate and not “best actor oscar who won.”

What about all those judges?

If you’re a Democrat, you should see a bunch of judges on the ballot. You won’t see any if you’re Republican — there are actually no Republican judicial candidates this election.

It’s not that lawyers aren’t Republicans. It’s that the Chicago Machine is still so strong candidates know a GOP judicial candidacy will go down in flames.

This also means that, if you are a Democrat, the people who win this primary will become the judges.

How do I pick a judicial candidate?

People tend to either skip voting for judges or vote based on weird stuff like whose name comes first on the ballot or what ethnicity the name sounds like.

Even stupider, some people vote based on the candidate’s politics.

These judges on these ballots will not be ruling on gay marriage or gun control. They’re going to be ruling on whether your ex-husband gets the kids or if they’re going to foreclose on your house.

A bad judge, even one who shares your religious beliefs, politics, Irish heritage and fashion sense, will directly and immediately ruin your life. It is in your self-interest to select judges who are good at being judges.

How do I know who would be a good judge?

The work has been done for you.

Each election, various bar associations (lawyer groups) rate the judicial candidates. While the candidates’ door fliers and websites can natter on about their strong family values and what parish they grew up in, the candidate reviews ask the candidates and the people they work with the things you want to know.

These candidate reviews will tell you that Judge A is noted for being late a lot, that Candidate B has been known to lose his temper in high-stress situations, that Candidate C will be a fantastic judge in like 10 years, but for now she has to put in her dues.

Showing up on time, knowing the law, not screaming in your face when you’re trying to fight a traffic ticket: Aren’t those more important to know than that they went to mass at St. Bede’s as a kid?

Many of the larger judicial candidate reviews can be found at VoteForJudges.org.

Write down the names you like so you don’t forget and bring that list to the polling place. Democracy isn’t a closed-book test.


Politics is about money. How can I find out who is beholden to whom?

Click on this link right here.

Once you’re there, change the tab for Committee Name from “Starts With” to “Contains.” You have to do this because most committees start with “Friends of…” or “The Committee to Re-Elect…”

Then type in the candidate’s last name. Hit search. You’re now in the world of campaign finance paperwork. It lists every dime that has come in or come out of that campaign, including the names and home addresses of everyone who gave those dimes or provided that pizza for the fundraiser.

I could wax poetic on this, and actually did once, but just play around with it. You’ll learn more just by toying with it than I could ever tell you.

Rousing Conclusion?

Is there a big, dramatic rousing pro-democracy conclusion you wish to dazzle us with?

No. Elections are horrible.

Our strait-laced governor used to make a staffer dress as a puppet clown version of former Gov. Pat Quinn and scream at rallies. “Quinnochio,” a paid political consultant who is still, as far as I know, anonymous, would dance, sing, scream and hold up signs asking what the former governor was lying about.

Big campaign donors can often find themselves with cushy government contracts, from pizza parties to meaningless studies. Pseudo-grassroots smear campaigns dress themselves as public interest, but have darker ties. Political gadflies circle newbie candidates, promising slickly run events and marketing that happen to drain their campaign funds.

If it’s dispiriting, it’s because this system was made to be dispiriting. An overwhelmed, confused voter who stays home is one less vote for the other guy.

An educated, informed voter who takes 20 minutes a year to drop by the booth is the last thing they want. So let’s give it to them.


Why voting matters

Campaign finance poetry

A low turnout for democracy

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