Credit: Jeff Helsel

The spring Democratic primaries may be the hottest elections in Chicago, but there’s plenty of action on this midterm ballot too. This November’s    election features an opportunity to decide Illinois’s next governor and attorney general, Cook County’s new tax assessor, and a few contested county commissioner, state legislator, and congressional seats. Plus you can choose whether to retain dozens of judges in our civil and criminal courts.

First things first, however: registration. To vote, you must register. Luckily, you can do this at the polls. If you’ve never voted in Chicago before, you should bring two forms of identification, one of them with your current address—like a utility bill or a report card. You can find more information about ID requirements for voter registration here. You can vote in Illinois even if you have a felony conviction, by the way.

Although the election is on November 6, you can already vote now. Early voting in Chicago is happening only at 175 W. Washington in the Loop until October 21. Check the opening times here. Between October 22 and November 5 you can vote early in your own ward—you’ll find a list of polling place locations and hours at that same link. (If you happen to be a student at the University of Chicago, Chicago State, NEIU, or UIC, you can vote early right on campus between October 31 and November 2. Details at the bottom of this same link.)

You may be wondering: What’s my ward? What’s my precinct? WHAT’S A PRECINCT? Chicago’s 50 wards are gerrymandered into completely illogical geographies, and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. Each ward is subdivided into precincts. To vote early after October 21, or to vote on Election Day, figure out your ward and precinct with this handy tool from the Chicago Board of Elections.

The results will not only show and tell you where your polling place is, but also let you know which ward, congressional district, state house and senate districts, judicial subcircuit, county district, Board of Review district, and any other special districts you fall into.

It’s OK if you don’t know what these districts are or what the people elected to oversee them do. Under the “public officials” tab you’ll find the names of the people currently holding these offices. And in the “sample ballot” tab you can see if you actually have a choice about them. Many candidates run unopposed. You’ll also see referendum questions on the ballot—designed to gauge your support for issues like raising the minimum wage, cracking down on gun dealers, or banning plastic straws. 

The sample ballot provided by the Board of Elections is a little rudimentary. I prefer the one from the League of Women Voters (not just for those who identify as women!), which is more interactive. However, their sample ballots aren’t available until closer to Election Day. Ballot Ready also has an excellent, interactive site and an app too. It explains what every office is. As you consider each candidate on your personalized ballot, you’ll see who has endorsed them and where they stand on various issues.

By far the largest chunk of the ballot is devoted to judges (75 of the 94 items on my ballot, for example). You’ll see name after name that you’ve never heard before with a demand to vote yes or no on allowing him or her to continue to do a job you might not know a lot about—unless you’re one of about 350,000 people who face criminal cases in Cook County every year, or maybe one of the 30,000 people who wind up in eviction court.

Almost every judicial candidate and sitting judge is rated by one of the local bar associations, and you can find more information about those evaluations here. But ultimately, bar association rankings amount to lawyers’ opinions about the judges they have to work with. For a more in-depth analysis the Injustice Watch judicial election guide is highly recommended. In addition to the bar rankings, it has information about which part of the court system the judge is in, any problems with their rulings, controversies they’ve been involved in, and their sentencing tendencies.

If you’re overwhelmed by researching candidates on your own, next week South Side Weekly will be holding a ballot-building event where you can team up with others to make more informed decisions.