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Voter Registration

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Norm Sloan ducks out of the rain just before 10:30 AM on a quiet Saturday and stakes out a dry spot at the entrance to the Century Shopping Centre. His arms are full of the tools for the day's work: signs from County Clerk David Orr's office, a folding table, a metal folding chair, a big rainbow-colored umbrella, and a backpack and a Treasure Island bag filled with pens, forms, clipboards, and personal belongings. He uses public transportation to haul this awkward load from his home in Wrigleyville to different sites around the city.

Sloan sets up his table at the south side of the mall entrance. He's likely to stay on this spot for eight or nine hours. He has spent countless days here at the corner of Clark and Diversey since he began volunteering as a deputy registrar in 1987. He represents two advocacy groups, Lesbian and Gay Voter Impact and Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts. "I was worried at the beginning of the summer, because it seemed like I had a monopoly on this whole area," says Sloan, who is about 40 (he won't say his exact age). "I wouldn't see [registrars] by the Dominick's on Broadway. I wouldn't see people by the el. And then suddenly at the beginning of August there began to be more registrars. I can only deal with so many people."

On this autumn day he's wearing the layered look of a college professor with a gray blazer and a black cotton sweater pulled over a gray-striped button-down shirt. On his right lapel are two buttons: "I Love the Arts and I Vote" and "Gay Lesbian--Vote 92."

Sloan often puts in longer hours volunteering--30 to 50 hours a week--than he does at his job, working the third shift (midnight to 9 AM) at a printing company. He took two weeks off for the push before the October 5 registration cutoff.

"Some registrars do two or three hours a week or two or three hours a month," says Sloan. When he's not rattling off instructions to potential voters, he speaks softly, in careful, measured sentences. "It just depends upon what priorities people have. I have maintained a tunnel vision on this. It's been easier for me because I don't have family commitments or other professional commitments."

Two volunteers from another organization arrive soon after Sloan does. They set up a table on the north side of the mall entrance and begin soliciting pedestrians. Sloan favors a low-key approach. "I don't yell out to people," he explains. "The table says what I'm doing here. I don't need to add to the noise pollution in the area. They see what I'm doing, and they either need the services or they don't."

On weekdays Sloan is more likely to work busy spots downtown: the intersection of Michigan and Chicago avenues, Federal Plaza or First National Plaza in the Loop. He also works the Addison and Belmont el stations, or at the corner of Roscoe and Halsted from 10:30 PM until the bars begin to empty at 2 AM.

A couple of 18-year-old women approach the table, one with purple hair wearing a black Babes in Toyland shirt, the other with bright red hair in an L7 shirt and a black leather jacket. Both wear pleated plaid skirts over black tights and Doc Martens. Babes in Toyland has already registered, but her friend hasn't. Sloan takes a deep breath and launches into his well-rehearsed script: "I need to see two pieces of ID, one with your current address. It can be a personal check, a piece of mail, a library card, a driver's license, a credit card, a state ID, a student ID, a work ID, a lease, a bank deposit slip."

"It is pretty repetitious, and sometimes when there are a lot of people I sound like a Federal Express commercial," Sloan says. "If you don't tell people this information and they don't absorb it, I feel we're not doing what we should be doing. We want to give them as much information as they need--not just be hustling to give them a receipt and get them out of your face."

Sloan traces his own political awakening to seeing a film about the United Farm Workers at his Jesuit high school in Massachusetts in 1967. Soon after, he was standing outside grocery stores encouraging consumers to support the grape boycott. He moved to Chicago in 1984, then decided to become a registrar in 1987, during Ron Sable's race for alderman of the 44th Ward and Mayor Harold Washington's reelection run. He continued to register voters in 1988 spurred on by the city's proposed human rights ordinance and the presidential election. The toll of AIDS on the gay community also motivated him to devote more time to registration as part of Voter Impact's campaign, which has registered more than 35,000 voters since 1988.

"We were losing so many people who were committed to the gay and lesbian community," he says. "It was a way of building on the legacy which they had left us by strengthening the present movement and preparing for the future. Part of that is registering voters and being out in public and just presenting ourselves matter-of-factly."

Things haven't always gone smoothly. Sloan says that in 1988 there were a couple of plainclothes policemen determined to run him off the street. "They asked me if I had a permit," he says. "I said, 'Permit? I didn't think I needed a permit to do this.' " Sloan asked the ACLU to find out for him, and in the meantime he went back downtown with his table--only to be issued a citation by the same officers. "I was steamed," he says. He eventually learned that he needed insurance covering his table for $1 million in damages. Independent Voters of Illinois agreed to cover him under its policy, and he got a permit. Since then, he says, he's only been bothered by police once or twice--"because they're more concerned with crime or people actually selling things, not registering people to vote."

In June, Sloan says, he was assaulted and nearly robbed on his way to catch the bus after a late night registering people at the Auditorium Theatre. "I had to use my table and chair as a shield," he says. "I didn't want to have any of my registration materials damaged in any way."

By noon the other voter registrars at the mall have folded up their table and chairs, loaded it all into a hatchback they've pulled up to the curb, and called it a day.

But though the weather is rainy, Sloan continues to attract registrants. People dig through their purses and wallets for driver's licenses, gas bills, traffic tickets, even pulling money and IDs out of their socks. They hunch over the table or kneel down to fill out the short address form. Central casting couldn't have recruited a more diverse group of people: a teacher from Rogers Park collecting for the NAACP, a white, middle-aged North Shore couple, a Latino hip-hop youth, a native of Guyana, a young actor who just moved here from Florida, a 30-ish African American professional couple, a social worker from Hyde Park, a loan officer from Wrigleyville, a young Asian American lawyer.

"It's part of keeping the city and the political structure of the country somewhat coherent," Sloan says. "It's one way of giving people something that they can do--that they have a right to do and they should demand a right to do. When you see the variety of people who vote, it's like you're part of the cement that's keeping the city together. You're giving people from all classes and races and orientations and cultural backgrounds the right to exercise their right to vote."

Sloan loves it when celebrities exercise their right to vote: "I have a list," he says with a sheepish smile, pulling a blue spiral notebook out of his backpack. "It's shameless." He turns to a page labeled "Famous Registrees."

"One of the first famous people I registered in 1988 was Amy Morton, the actress," he says. A few weeks ago he registered Jane Sahlins, who recently became a naturalized citizen. "That was a joy, because she's one of my heroes," says Sloan.

"We've got to get Bush out of office," one voter says as he registers, testing Sloan.

"I can't say anything," he responds, laughing.

One thing Sloan can't do--though he is tempted--is talk partisan politics: state law forbids it. "People make comments, and I can either smile or laugh or be ready to throw up--if I throw up it would be in private," he says.

"Sometimes you'll have some rowdy character who will try to have a rally, so I'll have to tell him to please leave, there is no electioneering allowed around the table."

An exuberant young woman in Lycra shorts and a white T-shirt parks her Honda Civic in the bus stop in front of the Great Ace, then bounds across rain-slicked Clark Street to Sloan's table and demands to be registered. Sloan complies. "I can vote! I can vote!" she hollers. "Hooooooo!" She runs back across Clark pumping her arms over her head, leaps into her car, slams the door, and screams again like a crazed cheerleader as she drives off: "Hoooooo!"

From his post in front of the mall, Sloan smiles an aw-shucks smile.

By mid-afternoon, 50 or so people have come away from his table as certified voters.

"I was excited when I saw the Sun-Times front-page story," Sloan says. The story reported that 150,000 voters have signed up since the March 17 primary, the largest increase in registration since the city began keeping records half a century ago. "The 44th Ward, which we've done a lot of work in, was the first. The other lakefront wards--42 and 43 and 46--were also high up on the list."

In 1988 Sloan registered 7,500 people. He's pretty sure that was more than any other registrar in the city that year, but the Board of Elections Commissioners will only confirm that he was in the top three.

He's been out registering since the summer of '91, taking short breaks before and after the primary. "As late as the beginning of January, when I was out registering--when it was 20 degrees--people were asking, 'What election is coming up?'" he says. "It was like a national amnesia. Last summer Bush's ratings were at 90 percent, and people were wondering if there was even going to be a presidential election of any significance."

A woman who had just moved to Chicago recently sought Sloan's counsel in deciding where her vote would count the most. She wanted to know if she should vote absentee in New York or register and cast her ballot here. "She was asking, 'Does Chicago usually go Democratic?' That's the other side of the coin from those people who say their vote doesn't make a difference."

Around 3 PM, a young guy wearing a Stanford sweatshirt returns to the table. He'd gotten Sloan's spiel about an hour earlier but lacked the proper IDs to register. He seems to have something on his mind. "I have another question," he says. "When you sign up, if you go back to another state, you just do the same thing?"

"It's totally independent," Sloan responds. "There's no national voter registration. It's just state by state and city by city."

"So a bunch of people who come in from another state could vote in a small election, right?" asks the Stanford guy. "Wouldn't it make a difference with a small number of votes in a city-type thing or something?"

"They would need to have established a residence," Sloan says patiently.

"They have to have an address," the Stanford guy says, satisfied. "OK, thanks."

By 4 PM the rain has ended and the sidewalks are filling up with shoppers. Sloan has registered nearly 100 people, but he stays on until it's nearly dark, bringing the day's total to more than 150. Then he folds up his chair and table and heads home. He'll be back tomorrow at noon. But after October 5, he's not so sure. He says this election "is the last time I'll cart a table around on public transportation 30 or 40 hours a week. I'd like to do other things. It can be draining after a while."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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