Election Day: Polling Problems, Political Squabbling, But Better Turnout Than Feared Amid Coronavirus

Chicago election judges facemasks
Chicago election judges Edwina Falls, left, and Darryl Williams donned facemasks as a precaution against coronavirus at their polling place at Robert Lawrence Senior Homes, 655 W. 65th St., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Chicago election judges facemasks
Chicago election judges Edwina Falls, left, and Darryl Williams donned facemasks as a precaution against coronavirus at their polling place at Robert Lawrence Senior Homes, 655 W. 65th St., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Election Day: Polling Problems, Political Squabbling, But Better Turnout Than Feared Amid Coronavirus

Despite fears of a historic low turnout in Illinois’ primary — as scores of polling places had to be relocated, election officials squabbled, and poll workers scrambled for cleaning supplies amidst the coronavirus pandemic — voter turnout appeared to be on track for a more typical low.

Earlier Tuesday, Chicago election officials ignited a white-hot fight with Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration over the governor’s decision to move ahead with the primary as the worldwide coronavirus pandemic worsened. Chicago officials feared being unable to get polling places open and operating on time, and safely. Many worried older voters, who typically make up the bulk of voters, might stay home.

But by late afternoon, turnout within the city was described by the Chicago Board of Elections as around 35 percent of eligible voters, with the Cook County clerk’s office observing the largest plurality of voters in the low-turnout election being those over 60 — the age group at the highest risk with the virus.

Still, there were problems. Some polling places didn’t open on time, with machines or poll workers delayed, and voters reported to WBEZ that some polls didn’t have enough hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes to clean pens and touch-screen voting machines.

It was a dismal start, overlayed with the disclosure by a top Chicago election board official that his agency had pressed Pritzker last week to postpone today’s vote because of public health concerns but got push-back from the governor’s office.

“We were on the phone with the governor's staff about a week ago, within hours of this being declared a global pandemic, and we were urging the postponement of this election, the abandonment of the polling place model of voting, and a conversion to vote-by-mail for the safety of the of the voting public,” Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen said.

“We were told the election must go on,” Allen said.

Yet by late Tuesday afternoon, Allen had significantly changed his tune about how the election was going for Chicago election authorities. He expected just five polling locations to stay open late, which is on-par with elections that occur under more normal circumstances than during a global pandemic.

“The spirit of the voters has been extremely positive through a very stressful and difficult situation,” Jim Allen said. “We’re grateful for that.”

But the comments Allen had made in the morning had already brought the ire of Pritzker.

As the governor announced to reporters that the state had seen its first death attributed to the coronavirus, Pritzker also unloaded on Allen and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners for revealing backroom talks about postponing the election on the day of the primary.

“I will not use this moment — this moment — to supersede my constitutional authority. I will not,” Pritzker forcefully said.

While the governor has broad emergency powers as a result of his disaster declaration, Pritzker repeatedly has resisted calls to postpone the election, questioning when — if ever — the election might be held if it didn’t happen as scheduled.

Pritzker said that in private conversations, he offered the use of the National Guard and coordination with programs that work with high school students to help Chicago with the election.

“Instead of accepting help or offering any solutions of their own, the Chicago Board of Elections decided to wait until election day to call the press and attempt to shift the blame for their failings,” Pritzker said.

As of 6 p.m., more than 254,000 people had cast ballots in Chicago in-person, with a tally of more than 449,000 including votes before election day.

In the 2016 primary, the vote count statewide was more than 2.08 million.

Before Tuesday, election officials in Chicago, Cook County and in some collar counties had been racing to relocate polling places, as privately-run polling spots backed out due to concerns about the coronavirus. At 6 a.m. Tuesday, polling places across the city opened up, some more quickly and smoothly than others.

Chicago election Little Village
Serafin Garcia, left, enters his ballot at Joses Ortiz De Dominguez School, a polling place in the 22nd Ward in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Voters at Truman College in Uptown were waiting to vote around 7:30 a.m. after the touch-screen machines reportedly went down. Some, like Brooke Cartwright, said they had already been rerouted from a polling place at a nearby library.

Cartwright also left Truman without voting, but said she would try again later Tuesday because she’s working from home. Like many on social media, she also expressed concerns about cleanliness.

“I am surprised there are not more hand washing stations,” Cartwright said. “I didn’t see a whole lot of election judges or coordinators wearing masks or gloves.”

Poll workers shared concerns over Twitter about having enough hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to make it through the day.

“We distributed what we had,” Allen said. “We certainly had no idea when we were making these purchases … that there would be a global pandemic.”

The hallway inside the Ella Flagg Young Apartments smelled like Lysol and hand sanitizer as voters cast ballots inside a community room. The Chicago Housing Authority building serves as a polling place in Uptown, as well.

Alyssa Perry cast her vote there this morning after realizing late last week she missed the deadline to vote by mail.

“I was kind of stuck coming in and voting in person, but I was okay with coming in person because I got in and out in five to 10 minutes,” Perry said. “Now, I’m going to (use) my hand sanitizer, go home and stay home the rest of the day.”