Despite a global COVID-19 pandemic, having the Illinois National Guard on standby and months-long worries about the safety of the country’s electoral process, Illinois voters saw relatively minor issues at the polls as they turned out at rates comparable to previous presidential elections.
But it was how they voted — in record-breaking numbers through vote-by-mail and early in-person voting — and who voted that stood out on Tuesday.
Younger voters in Chicago — those ages 25 to 34 — topped the tallies. And as of Tuesday evening, more than 1.8 million Illinois residents turned their ballots in through the U.S. Postal Service or a ballot drop box. Another 1.9 million voted early in-person.
Combined, that’s more than twice the number of people who voted by either method in 2016’s presidential election that saw Donald Trump win the White House.
With so many ballots cast before Election Day, it made for a calm scene at polling places around Chicago.
In Gage Park on the Southwest Side, there were polling places at two schools around the corner from each other, and Tuesday morning, both were nearly vacant. The neighborhood is home to some of the highest COVID-19 rates in the city and to essential employees who can’t work from home.
About a 15-minute drive north, Charles Hammond Elementary School in Little Village also saw a trickle of voters.
Many voters could still be seen dropping off mail-in-ballots into drop boxes Tuesday, eschewing the possibility of a line for the convenience.
“We think this election is going to likely change not only how elections are run possibly in Illinois but in other jurisdictions around the country as well,” said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. “We’re all laboratories and all looking for the best practices we can find and this has been a very challenging election but at the same time a very educational one.”
Allen said he’s expecting “a lot of repeat customers” for vote-by-mail ballots in future elections given how smoothly this year’s process has gone so far. And — on a bigger scale — questioned if there will be calls to remove voting sites in every Chicago precinct, instead moving to a ward-by-ward voting location on Election Day.
“These are budgetary issues as well as public policy issues,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic also created hurdles for voters, as they were asked to wear masks and stand at least 6 feet apart while waiting in line to vote.
For some, casting a vote Tuesday was a particularly emotional moment, amid the unrest and struggles of the past year.
Rick Escobedo, a 41-year-old who described himself as a first-time voter, said he cast his ballot for Joe Biden.
“It was pretty emotional, with [the] hope that everything changes from here on out,” Escobedo said. “It’s just how divided everything is now. … Even my own friends, there’s a dividing line right now. It’s shameful to me.”
Matt Dietrich, a spokesman with the Illinois State Board of Elections said they received “scattered” reports of defiant voters who refused to comply with the public health guidelines, but they weren’t concentrated in any particular region of the state.
Election Day also presented a challenge in how to allow voters with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to cast their ballot. Dietrich said he was aware of at least one instance in Effingham County where the clerk allowed the voter to do curbside voting.
But while this election showed local election authorities can handle a massive shift away from Election Day voting toward absentee, more than 500,000 vote-by-mail ballots were not returned across Illinois, according to data available from the Illinois State Board of Elections on Tuesday morning.
Those ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and arrive to their local election authority within 14 days to be counted — meaning the full count of how many ballots were cast in the state won’t be known until Nov. 17.
The state board of elections verifies the results on Dec. 4.
Gov. JB Pritzker warned residents to be patient and avoid misinformation on social media in the days ahead as the counting of these outstanding ballots continue and campaigns hang in the air. It’s a grim reminder of the attempt by foreign countries like Russia and Iran to sow doubt on the election results.
“With the record-setting use of vote-by-mail ballots here in Illinois because of COVID, we can probably expect to get results on probably Wednesday or Thursday or Friday,” Pritzker said.
Voters in Chicago echoed that sentiment Tuesday, many saying they didn’t expect to get answers about who would be the next president Tuesday night.
“Nothing’s going to be decided today, so I’m just going to zone out [until] things become more clear,” said Lincoln Square resident Lindsay Grundy, 28.
The freshman Democratic governor also asked the Illinois National Guard to stand at-the-ready in case any local government asked for their assistance in response to the election. While no city or county had made such a request, the National Guard was deployed in Chicago earlier this year in response to looting in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Tony Arnold, Claudia Morell and Kristen Schorsch cover politics for WBEZ.