Today isn't Election Day, but you can get ready to vote. And that means you can make a difference in your community.

Early voting — the ability to cast a vote at your county clerk's office and other sites — is a relatively new offering in Illinois. It's different than absentee voting and grace period registration/voting, but the result is the same: you cast a vote in advance of Election Day, giving you a chance to participate in democracy on your own schedule.

Early voting is expected to start Feb. 20 in McLean County. Today is the first day that election authorities can mail paper ballots to those who wish to vote absentee.

The primary election on March 20 will determine which candidate from a party will be nominated to run in the general election on Nov. 6. In some locations, voters also will be asked to determine the outcome of a referendum. You don't have to be a party member to vote March 20, but you will be asked to choose a Democrat or Republican ballot, or a nonpartisan ballot if you want to vote only on a referendum.

Voting before Election Day, in theory, gives more people an opportunity to be part of the process. If you will be on vacation March 20 and away from your polling place, no worries; cast a ballot before you leave. If you know for whom you wish to vote, go ahead. No need to wait, but no do-overs if you change your mind.

Grace period registration is for people who have missed the deadline to register; they get extra time, but must cast their ballot immediately after registering. Maybe you moved to a new address. Maybe it's your first election and you forgot — or didn't know — you needed to register before you could vote. Traditional voter registration closes 28 days before an election; grace period registration is available from 27 days before an election through Election Day.

American citizens who live overseas, or those serving in the military, also have a way to vote other than being at home on Election Day.

Voting is a right of democracy, but it's also a privilege. Each Election Day, we elect dozens of leaders who run local, state and federal governments, and often are asked to decide local initiatives or bond issues.

America was founded on the idea of democracy: anyone can put forth their name to lead our communities through their dedication of time, talent, knowledge and interest. In Illinois, state budgetary problems have rolled downhill to affect almost every form of government and the people they serve. Making sure we have the right people in the right jobs is crucial to returning this state to a leadership position in the Midwest and across the country.

Cast a vote and make your voice heard.

To check your registration, contact your local county clerk's office or election authority. You also can visit the state Board of Elections at http://www.elections.il.gov/ for information on how to register, how to vote, and who is running for what seat.