Susie An: When Chicago residents go to cast their vote on November 8th, they may be surprised to find their polling place no longer exists. That's because the city's board of elections is reducing the number of voting precincts by nearly 40%. The controversial move dominated much of the conversation yesterday at the board's annual budget hearing in front of a city council panel. WBEZ's Mariah Woelfel joins us now with more on what this means for Chicago voters. Hey, Mariah.
Mariah Woelfel: Hey, Susie.
Susie An: So let's back up a bit. What is a voting precinct? And why are they being cut in Chicago?
Mariah Woelfel: Sure. So we can start by looking at how the city is divided up. There are 50 wards in Chicago. Each Ward contains dozens of voting precincts essentially, you know, smaller sections of the ward that help split up residents for elections so that everyone isn't all crowded together in one place on Election Day.
The city previously had more than 2,000 voting precincts, but now they're cutting them nearly in half. That's because a new state law passed in 2021 is requiring this type of consolidation. And Chicago election officials say it's going to save them $2 million dollars. It's been expensive and difficult to keep polling places open. You need locations, equipment, election judges and all that, you know, while voter habits have been changing, we know people like to vote by mail, vote early.
Susie An: Well, but still, you know, this sounds like a big reduction of voting precincts. What does this mean for voters in the November election?
Mariah Woelfel: Well, whereas previously precincts had about 600 registered voters, this consolidation means they're now supposed to serve around 1,800. You know, it's a big increase. Aldermen like Anthony Napolitano worry that making precincts serve more people will mean long wait times and lines.
Anthony Napolitano: I just feel like this could kind of be seen as a suppression of voting. I just think that we're going to be cramming a lot of people that are going to show up on election day and say there's too many people and I'm not going to vote.
Mariah Woelfel: Aldermen say voters may be discouraged if they go to their old polling place and find that it's changed, that this could make it harder for seniors to cast their ballots. Simply put, you know, we're in an environment of distrust in our election system, people are worried about not having their vote counted and not being able to vote. Aldermen really don't think it's time to be closing voting locations or making these types of changes.
It should be noted, the board is cutting precincts, but it's not cutting as heavily the physical locations you can vote. I know that sounds confusing, but this is because some voting locations in the past had multiple precincts in them. Now you will have just one precinct, a bigger one with more voters.
Susie An: So yeah, I could see how that might be confusing for voters, what is the Board of Elections doing to spread the word about new locations.
Mariah Woelfel: So the board is going to spend about half a million, or 10 times as much money as last year on print and digital media in the Sun Times and Chicago Tribune, as well as, they said, neighborhood and community news outlets. They're on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, they even have a podcast, it sounds like this:
The City That Votes: Welcome to The City That Votes, a new series from the Chicago Board of Elections, taking you behind the polling place...
Mariah Woelfel: What voters should really look out for though is a card in the mail and an email by the end of this month that will have the address of their new polling place. And election officials say that old polling places will have signs that direct voters to new locations.
Susie An: So do voters have to vote at their new specific precinct on Election Day?
Mariah Woelfel: Typically they do, but not this year. So if you don't want to figure out all that precinct stuff, you can go to any of the city's early voting sites even on Election Day. Typically those early voting sites have to close by election day. But a pandemic era rule allows the city to keep them open. But that law allowing the city to use early voting sites on Election Day expires in January. So while election officials are trying to lobby to make that permanent, there's no telling whether this will be the case come the February municipal election.
Susie An: That's WBEZ's Mariah Woelfel talking about changing precinct boundaries in the upcoming general election. Thanks Mariah.
Mariah Woelfel: Thanks, Susie.
Susie An: This is WBEZ.
WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.