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Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden, participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios in Washington on Sunday.

Evan Vucci

In Illinois Democratic Presidential Primary, Pandemic Looms As Voters Choose Biden Or Sanders

An Illinois election that forced Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to forego handshakes, parades and rafter-shaking rallies limped to a finish Tuesday as worsening COVID-19 pandemic fears turned traditional campaigning into an avoidance of human contact.

One of the most chaotic elections in Illinois history unfolded despite a statewide shutdown of schools, bars and restaurants, museums and countless workplaces, leaving voting as one of the remaining allowable human interactions during the worst public health scare in more than a century.

Across the city and suburbs, voters warily entered polling places with hand sanitizer in hopes of avoiding the highly contagious and lethal virus while undertaking a quadrennial act of civic duty that typically takes no more than 10 minutes to perform.

An above-average number of election judges appeared to have the same fear, forcing city election authorities to scramble for dozens of last-minute replacements.

Another complicating feature of Tuesday’s vote was shifting polling places. More than 160 precincts had to be moved as host locales, many populated by senior citizens deemed the most vulnerable to the virus, made clear they didn’t want potential, disease-bearing voters entering their confines.

Map: Find updated polling locations for Chicago and Cook County

But after heavy promotion of early-voting in Illinois, one silver thread emerged from Tuesday’s election. The messaging from Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and state election authorities bore results, and about 118,000 residents sought vote-by-mail applications, breaking a record that had stood since World War II.

Barely a week ago, it looked full speed ahead for normal primaries in Illinois, Florida, Georgia and Arizona. But exponentially growing COVID-19 headcounts in each state raised questions about whether the risk of accelerating the spread of the illness outweighed the need for an election. Ohio, Georgia and Louisiana all postponed their elections because of the pandemic.

But here in Illinois, even with mass closures underway, Pritzker insisted Illinois’ primary move forward, arguing that there was no telling whether a primary election might ever happen here if residents are forced to remain homebound for weeks or months as a last-ditch bulwark against COVID-19.

“This is the right thing to do,” Pritzker said Monday, even as he ordered a ban on public gatherings of 50 or more people. “Our democracy needs to go on.”

Heading into Tuesday, the Democratic race for president had tilted dramatically in Biden’s favor with his series of wins in the South and in Midwestern battleground states

Michigan and Minnesota, which Sanders had won in his 2016 primary bid for president.

Biden’s momentum made him an early favorite in Illinois and the three other states voting Tuesday, and the four states became must-wins for Sanders, who lost all these states to Hillary Clinton in his 2016 primary bid for president.

Four years ago in Illinois, Sanders ceded victory to Clinton by roughly 40,000 votes out of 2 million cast. Sanders won four of the five collar counties ringing Chicago then, with only Lake County voting in Clinton’s favor. Sanders also carried the overwhelming majority of Downstate counties.

But Clinton made up for that by winning overwhelmingly in Chicago and suburban Cook County, including in three city congressional districts that have high concentrations of African American voters, who sided with her in big numbers.

This go-around, both Biden’s and Sanders’ campaigns had to cancel rallies and fundraisers in Illinois and scrapped get-out-the-vote door-knocking that was the bread and butter of political ground games for generations. Suddenly in vogue were “virtual” no-audience town halls and online and phone-banking and texting operations handled by campaign workers in their homes.

Beyond those logistical difficulties, Sanders faced the added challenge of having to navigate the political terrain in a state he lost by two percentage points in 2016, this time with much of the state’s Democratic political muscle backing Biden.

Swept up by Biden’s momentum this month, Democrats including Gov. JB Pritzker, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the overwhelming majority of Illinois’ Democratic congressional delegation sided with the former vice president.

Sanders’ main Illinois campaign backers included his longtime friend, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the leadership of the 28,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, and Chicago civil rights icon and two-time presidential candidate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Nationally, Biden entered Tuesday’s votes as the dominant leader over Sanders in delegates.

To secure the party’s nomination, the winning candidate has to secure 1,991 delegates by July, when Democrats hold their national convention. The NPR/Associated Press delegate tracker had Biden at 890 delegates, with Sanders at 736.

Illinois is the second-largest prize on Tuesday, with a total of 184 delegates at stake.

Dave McKinney covers state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.

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