Millions of Americans will be heading to the polls on Nov. 6 and Cook County Clerk David Orr’s job is to ensure the process runs smoothly for residents of suburban Cook County.
It’s not always easy. Not with ballots printed in three languages. Not with electronic voting machines coming under suspicion all over the country. Not with 263 precincts to be staffed and equipped while a horde of journalists crowd into his Loop office looking not just for early results but any sign of a screw-up.
“There’s an enormous amount of detail work that we do that night… that is my concern, getting the votes in and getting them counted,” said Orr, who has been doing this since 1991.
Orr is the official executive election authority for suburban Cook County—one of the largest election jurisdictions in the United States. Chicago’s precincts are managed, and its votes counted, by the city’s Board of Elections overseen by Langdon Neal.
Part of Orr’s job is making sure suburban voting sites are functional and ready for voters, making sure ballot machines are working and that each polling place has adequate staffing.
But his influence lately extends far beyond Cook County. With two decades of experience and a reputation as a straight arrow, Orr has emerged as a national spokesperson for election reform, especially for early voting and student election judge programs.
For over 30 years Orr has been independent voice in Chicago politics. A former alderman of the city’s 49th ward, he lives in Rogers Park with his wife and four children. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Simpson College and a master’s degree in American studies from Case Western University.
Young voters were out in full force for the 2008 election, Orr said. The young are still out there, he worries, but they want to see government work more effectively.
With ongoing issues such as student loan debt and the country’s economic situation, Orr said, youth may be a little disgruntled this time around.
“I think lots of young people would like to see government solve problems more easily,” he said.
First elected to the City Council in 1979, Orr cites the 1983 election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago and the 2008 election of Presidential Barack Obama as among the two most exciting contests of his career. A low moment, ironically, was when Washington died in November of 1987 and Orr served for two weeks as interim mayor until the City Council named an acting mayor.
“In 1979 I was the first candidate in modern history in the Rogers Park/Edgewater area ever to beat the machine one-on one,” he said about defeating the slated candidate of the Regular Democratic Organization, aka The Machine.
The Machine dominated Chicago politics for decades. Orr said he accomplished the feat with “hundreds and hundreds of volunteers.”
Orr calls the 2008 Presidential election “historic” and a defining moment.
“In the 2008,” he said, ’ the historic fact that someone with African American blood—in a country where there’s such a history of racism—was able to actually win the presidency was a marvelous accomplishment.”
The 2012 Presidential race is also exciting for Orr. “Besides the presidency, the next big thing are what happens with the Senate and the House,” he said. “That to me is what is fascinating. Are the Democrats able to hold on to the Senate and win back the House?”
On Sept. 25, Orr and other county took part in a nonpartisan voter registration drive in south suburban Markham in conjunction with National Voter Registration Day.
“Presidential elections always help get another generation excited about democracy,” Orr said that day. “But you can’t vote unless you are registered so we’re going gangbusters to make sure every eligible voter is on the rolls.”
As of Sept. 24, there are about 79,000 fewer registered voters in suburban Cook County than by Election Day in 2008. Among 18- to 34-year olds, suburban Cook registrations are down by about 50,000, according to a Clerk’s office.
“Hopefully National Voter Registration Day, and the efforts of so many deputy registrars, can help close that gap,” Orr said.
The last day to register to vote in the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 9 Early voting begins in Cook County on Oct. 22. For more information, head to the official site.