By Rachel White
Illinois early voting numbers are at a record high for midterm elections in Cook County and some community organizations believe the surge in voter turnout is largely a result of the proposed minimum wage increase on the ballot.
“Lots of people vote in presidential election years but stay home for midterm elections,” said DeJaun Jackson, a lead organizer for Chicago Votes.
Chicago Votes is dedicated to engaging young voters in the democratic process. The group lobbied in Springfield to pass legislation that allowed people to register to vote and cast their ballot in the same day during early voting.
Chicago Votes collaborated with Raise Illinois, which is a legislative campaign focused on increasing Illinois’ minimum wage to $10 from $8.25. The organization is composed of community, business, faith and labor organizations as well as minimum wage workers and supporters who are committed to raising minimum wage.
Raise Illinois held a news conference Thursday to talk about its success in registering people to vote and getting them to vote early.
As of Thursday morning, more Chicagoans had submitted their early ballot than ever before during a midterm election, said Scott Vogel, senior communications specialist for the Service Employees International Union Healthcare, which works closely with Raise Illinois.
Raise Illinois gets daily reports of how many people have voted from the State Board of Elections, Vogel said. “We are able to determine, with reasonable certainty, who is voting to raise the minimum wage on the referendum,” Vogel said.
“In order to really understand what raising the minimum wage means, you have to understand what the current minimum wage of $8.25 an hour does for a working guy like myself,” said Devondrick Jeffers, a member of Action Now, one of the organizations collaborating with Raise Illinois and Chicago Votes to increase voter turnout.
Jeffers, who works as a salesman, said his financial situation is so dire that he has to decide which one of his bills he can afford to pay on time. Once he had to take out a loan just to make rent payments.
“After paying all these bills I barely have enough money to make it to and from work, and I still have a family at home that I have to feed,” Jeffers said.
Jeffers lives in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, and became a dad less than a week ago. He said the birth of his daughter has added even more stress to his financial situation.
“This is supposed to be a really happy time in my life,” Jeffers said. “I think about all the hopes and dreams that I have for her and I have to cast them aside…she’s doomed to continue this downward spiral living in a crime-ridden neighborhood.”
He said that if more people in similar situations show up to vote in these midterm elections, real change could be made.
“We need to raise the minimum wage and we need government officials who actually serve the people who elected them,” he said.
Jeffers said he’s not alone.
“There are a lot of us who are [living] below that poverty line who work every day,” Jeffers said.
According to a report produced by the Social Impact Research Center, a Heartland Alliance program, 33.8 percent of people in Chicago are living in poverty.
“Participating in the electoral process is another tool in the tool kit to really be able to create meaningful change in our communities,” said Jaribu Lee, assistant education organizer for Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “People are also coming to understand that their voices deserve to be heard.”
“There are still three days of early voting left and we are confident that a tremendous number of citizens coming out to vote will continue,” she said. “This is democracy in action,” Lee said.
Early voting for the midterm elections started on Monday, Oct. 20 and ends Sunday, Nov. 2.