It’s easy to forget that there are things other than a global pandemic happening right now on planet Earth. We get it.
But Illinois is holding primary elections on March 17th, even though the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 is causing some major disruptions.
It’s not just the Democratic race for the White House (though that’s pretty important). You’ll be asked to weigh in on a slew of local races.
And if you care about criminal justice reform in Cook County (or even just about reforming traffic court), pay attention: These local elections will help decide who runs one of the largest criminal justice and court systems in America. They’ll also decide who sits on the state’s highest court, and who gets to compete in some key congressional races in November’s general election.
Here’s what you need to know to cast an informed vote in Illinois’ primary elections. (And hey, if you’re an undecided Dem, check out this snazzy quiz to help you pick a presidential candidate.)
Feel free to jump around and read about …COVID-19 and voting Cook County State’s Attorney Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Illinois 14th Congressional District Illinois 6th Congressional District Chicago congressional seats: Illinois 1st and 7th Districts Judges
COVD-19 and voting: What you need to know
What’s the deal? The World Health Organization has declared a world-wide pandemic due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, a deadly new member of the coronavirus family. In Illinois, schools have been shut down and election authorities are scrambling to relocate polling places because some spots (like nursing homes) are backing out. But unlike some other states, Illinois is moving forward with its primary elections Tuesday.
Why should I care? Ifyou want to vote on Election Day, you’ll need somewhere to do it. Also,waiting in line with your fellow citizens at a busy polling place doesn’t exactly jive with what public health experts have been advising regarding “social distancing” to stem the spread of COVID-19.
What do I need to know? First and foremost: Election officials say, if you can vote early, do it now. Check with your local election authority (links below) for early voting hours and locations. If you’re voting by mail, your ballot must be postmarked by March 17th in order to have your vote counted. And if you know you can’t get your mail-in ballot postmarked by Tuesday, you can still vote on Election Day at your local polling place.
If you do vote in-person on Election Day: Be smart. Practice social distancing. Take advantage of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for touch-screen voting machines, which election officials will have on hand. If you want, bring your own pen to mark your ballot (black or blue ink only). Remember, state law says your employer must give you time off work to vote. And finally, be patient and flexible. We’re all in this together.
What to expect: The unexpected. It’s unclear whether other polling places will have to be moved, either due to COVID-19 concerns or because workers don’t show up to polling places. Your best source for the most up-to-date information is your local election authority. Check there right before you go vote.
Cook County State’s Attorney
What’s the deal? Incumbent Kim Foxx faces three challengers in the Democratic primary: investor and former Assistant State’s Attorney Bill Conway; lawyer and ex-Chicago Ald. Bob Fioretti; and lobbyist and former federal prosecutor Donna More. In the Republican primary, lawyer Christopher Pfannkuche faces former Assistant Illinois Attorney General Pat O’Brien.
Why should I care? If you care about criminal justice reform, it’s hard to think of a more consequential office than this one. More than 500 people were murdered in Cook County last year, and the state’s attorney’s job is to prosecute those and other crimes. The charging decisions by the prosecutors in the office have a huge impact on incarceration rates in Illinois, given the county’s size. The office also plays a central role in rooting out wrongful convictions. And in a heavily Democratic county like Cook, the Democratic primary in this race will likely be the decisive election.
What do I need to know? If you pay attention to campaign ads, you’d think the most pressing issue in this race is a bizarre celebrity scandal involving former Empire actor Jussie Smollett, who was recently charged by a special prosecutor for allegedly faking a hate crime against himself and falsely reporting it to police. Foxx’s office dropped the original charges against Smollett, leading to accusations that her office was going easy on him because of his celebrity and connections.
The scandal has sucked up most of the oxygen in the race, even though several anti-violence and criminal justice advocates have dismissed it as a distraction. Elsewhere in the race, Conway has gotten heat for the millions of dollars he’s taking from his billionaire dad, who founded a huge investment firm. And More, who has been a lobbyist for cannabis and gambling interests, has denied she’d have to recuse herself as state’s attorney from any cases due to her previous clients.
Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District
What’s the deal? The longtime incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, faces a rematch against progressive challenger Marie Newman, along with two others: Nicor Gas worker Charles Hughes and Rush Darwish, who runs a multimedia production company. On the GOP side, self-avowed Nazi Art Jones is on the ballot again, along with real estate agent Catherine O’Shea and Will County Board member Mike Fricilone.
Why should I care? Because in a district as heavily Democratic as this one — it’s been solid blue since Watergate — the primary is seen as the decisive election. And some national politicos are casting the Democratic race as a bellwether for the party: Is there room for conservative Democrats like Lipinski in the tent, or will they be muscled out by more progressive candidates like Newman?
What do I need to know? The 3rd District includes parts of Chicago’s blue-collar Southwest Side and southwest suburbs. And unlike in many primaries, the differences between the main candidates — Lipinski and Newman — are substantial.
She favors abortion rights and government-funded health care for all, and she’s picked up endorsements from the likes of Bernie Sanders, Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood. Lipinski is a rare anti-abortion Democrat who wants to reform Obamacare (even after voting against it), and he’s gotten backing from loads of labor unions, including the one representing Chicago cops. A 16-year veteran who inherited his father’s congressional seat, Lipinski has become a target of progressives because he’s not afraid to buck his party: In addition to Obamacare, he voted against the DREAM Act and has taken heat for his past opposition to same-sex marriage. Darwish, meanwhile, has tried to establish himself as a moderate voice between two extremes, but has struggled to gain traction.
On the GOP side, Republicans are recovering from the national embarassment of having a Holocaust-denier as their nominee in 2018. Fricilone is even framing himself as “the candidate taking a stand against Neo-Nazism.”
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk
What’s the deal? For the first time in 20 years, the race for Cook County Circuit Court clerk is wide open as longtime clerk Dorothy Brown retires. The Democrats who want to replace her: former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin; county property tax official Michael Cabonargi; state Sen. Iris Martinez; and attorney Jacob Meister. Whoever wins faces Barbara Bellar, the lone Republican in the race, come November.
Why should I care? If you ever go to court in Cook County — even for a traffic ticket — this office will affect your life. Despite its wonky-sounding name, the court clerk has a hugely important job: organizing case files and documents for one of the largest local court systems in America. And even though it’s 2020, many of those files are still on paper (even carbon paper) instead of, ya know, computers. The next person to do this job will be tasked with ushering the system further into the 20th century.
What do I need to know? The Democratic primary will likely be the deciding election for this seat in heavily Democratic Cook County. All the candidates agree that digitizing more court records is a top priority, as is cleaning up an office that’s long had a reputation for corruption and patronage under Brown (only Boykin has defended her). They also say they want to make some documents subject to the state’s open records law, and end the practice of hiring private debt collection agencies to chase people who can’t afford their court fines and fees.
The differences are in the candidates themselves. Cabonargi won the nod from the Cook County Democratic Party, while Boykin has been an outspoken critic of the party’s chair. Martinez boasts 17 years in the Illinois Senate, while Meister has nearly three decades of experience as a local lawyer who uses the court system routinely. He’s also tried to defeat Brown and win the clerk’s job before.
Illinois 14th Congressional District
What’s the deal? Seven — yes, seven — Republicans are lining up to run against freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood in November, following her upset victory in 2018. Her would-be GOP challengers (deep breath): music school owner Jerry Evans; Anthony Catella; investor Ted Gradel; former Trump administration advisor Catalina Lauf; business owner Jim Marter; dairy magnate and state Sen. Jim Oberweis; and state Sen. Sue Rezin.
Why should I care? Because the race for the 14th Congressional District is expected to be one of the most competitive in the country this November. Democrats want to keep the seat to maintain their control of the U.S. House of Representatives — which, as we’ve seen, can have some pretty big implications.
What do I need to know? Underwood upset an incumbent Republican in 2018 as part of a Democratic sweep to win back the House. The national GOP sees Underwood as being vulnerable, given that Trump won the district in 2016.
Whoever wins the GOP primary here can likely expect national party support and outside money to try and influence the race. Oberweis has mounted several unsuccessful campaigns to represent the region in Washington, D.C., which has prompted Rezin to label him “unelectable” given his previous losses. By contrast, Lauf’s campaign has emphasized her youth, saying it’s time for fresh blood in the GOP.
Illinois 6th Congressional District
What’s the deal? This once-Republican stronghold turned blue in 2018, and the GOP would like it back. But first, Republicans have to decide who has the best chance to unseat freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten. The choices: former Illinois state Rep. Jeanne Ives or surgeon Gordon “Jay” Kinzler.
Why should I care? Because the general election in November between Casten and whoever wins the GOP primary March 17 is expected to be pretty competitive. Before Casten won, this seat was in Republican hands for decades — mostly held by anti-abortion stalwart Henry Hyde.
What do I need to know? The C-shaped district covers dozens of Chicago suburbs including Downers Grove, Wheaton, Algonquin and Palatine. It’s gotten more diverse recently, though it’s still overwhelmingly white and affluent.
Ives is a familiar face. She represented parts of the district in the Illinois legislature from 2012 to 2018. She also challenged former Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 and almost became the party’s candidate in the gubernatorial race against now-Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.
Ives and Kinzler are both military veterans and agree on limiting the role of government and reducing taxes. They differ on how to reform social security and other entitlement programs. Kinzler has shied away from making social issues a cornerstone of his campaign, while Ives is an unabashed social conservative. She has the backing of anti-abortion groups and, during her run for governor, attacked Rauner in a controversial ad for his support of traditionally liberal social issues.
Chicago congressional seats: Illinois 1st and 7th Districts
What’s the deal? Two veteran African American Democrats — U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush and Danny Davis — have primary challenges from a bevy of younger candidates. Rush faces community activist and organizer Robert Emmons Jr.; law student Sarah Gad; and anti-violence activist Ameena Matthews in the 1st congressional district.
Davis’ challengers in the 7th district congressional race: teacher Anthony Clark; health care advocate Kina Collins; and attorney Kristine Schanbacher. Neither district has a competitive Republican primary.
Why should I care? Rush and Davis are both established pols who grew out of the civil rights movement and went on to have decades-long careers in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics. While it’s unclear whether they’re in danger of losing their seats, their challengers are sparking a discussion about whether it’s time for a new generation of political leaders to take over.
What do I need to know? Rush was first elected to Congress in 1992 and is a former founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party. He’s survived multiple electoral challenges, a congressional ethics investigation and cancer. He represents one of the relatively few predominantly African American congressional districts in the country, but there’s concern the recent exodus from the South Side could change that.
Now, three challengers say the South Side 1st Congressional District is in need of new blood in Washington. Emmons has support from Brand New Congress, the organization that helped elect liberal Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. Another is Gad, who openly talks about her past struggles with opioids — it involves a stint in Cook County Jail. The third challenger, Matthews, is an activist best known for her role in the award-winning documentary about gun violence in Chicago called the The Interrupters.
Davis faces a similar push for new blood in the 7th Congressional District, which spans from west-central suburban Hillside all the way to Lake Michigan, making it one of the most economically diverse in Illinois. He was elected to his seat in 1996, after having served for nearly two decades on Chicago’s City Council and then the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Davis’ opponents criticize him for missing a lot of votes, saying he’s no longer effective. One of his young challengers, Clark, a veteran and teacher from Oak Park, identifies as a Democratic Socialist and has been pushing a heavily issues-oriented campaign. Clark snagged the endorsement of the Sun-Times. Kina Collins, a community organizer for health care policy, has aligned with the newly elected alderman of Woodlawn, who’s been pressuring the Obama Presidential Center for a community benefits agreement. Another Davis challenger, Schanbacher, is a human rights lawyer from Streeterville. She already has the endorsement of three downtown and lakefront aldermen in Chicago and the west suburbs.
What’s the deal? Cook County voters will get to choose among seven Democratic candidates to fill an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. You’ll also likely see a slew of lower court judges on your ballot who are up for retention.
Why should I care? Because laws shape your life. From abortion to state pensions to Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Supreme Court gets the last say as the final legal arbiter in the state. The court doesn’t always get the same attention as the governor or state legislature, but its constitutional footing is equal. With no Republicans running, whoever wins won’t face opposition in November and will be elected to a 10-year term.
What do I need to know? For the dozens of down-ballot judge races, Injustice Watch has a comprehensive election guide to help you make informed decisions (so you don’t just pick all the Irish-sounding women).
The Supreme Court seat up for election, meanwhile, is currently held by Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr., who was appointed to complete the term of Charles Freeman after he retired in 2018. (Freeman, the court’s first black justice, recently died.)
Neville’s six rivals include five appellate justices and a private attorney. Five of the candidates, including Neville, are men, and two are women. Three are African American, one is Latino and three are white — opening the door for the first all-white state Supreme Court since 1990.
Neville has run the table on major endorsements, including from the Cook County Democratic Party and the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. He also has key labor backing, including from the Chicago Federation of Labor, AFSCME Council 31 and SEIU Healthcare Illinois.
But rival Shelly A. Harris is winning the battle of the airwaves, far and away leading the seven-way field in spending. The state appeals court justice has booked more than $1.6 million worth of network and cable television advertising in Chicago.
Others in the race include state appellate justices Cynthia Y. Cobbs, who once was Freeman’s law clerk; Nathaniel Roosevelt Howse, who has Secretary of State Jesse White’s backing; Margaret Stanton McBride and Jesse G. Reyes.
Rounding out the field is lawyer Daniel Epstein, who was admitted to the state bar in 2015.
This crib sheet was written by Tony Arnold, Alex Keefe, Chip Mitchell, Claudia Morell and Becky Vevea. It was edited by Cate Cahan.
Photos via U.S. Congress, Robb Davidson, Hud Englehart, Paul Goyette, Eli Jenkinson, Manuel Martinez/WBEZ and campaigns