Lots of confusion on Election Day in Chicago as voters hunt down new polling places

Nearly half of Chicago voters have a newly assigned polling place. That’s due to a redrawn ward map and precinct consolidation.

WBEZ
The Chicago Board of Elections reduced the number of voting precincts by 40% and the number of polling locations by 10%. This sign was posted at New Field Elementary School in Rogers Park. Tessa Weinberg / WBEZ
WBEZ
The Chicago Board of Elections reduced the number of voting precincts by 40% and the number of polling locations by 10%. This sign was posted at New Field Elementary School in Rogers Park. Tessa Weinberg / WBEZ

Lots of confusion on Election Day in Chicago as voters hunt down new polling places

Nearly half of Chicago voters have a newly assigned polling place. That’s due to a redrawn ward map and precinct consolidation.

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Chicago voters navigated changing polling places Tuesday as they headed to the ballot box to vote for the next governor of Illinois and other seats up for grabs in this midterm election.

At New Field Elementary School in Rogers Park, the doors were shut as a bright red sign posted on the entrance let voters know in bold letters their polling place had moved. And around the corner at the Rogers Park Library Branch, some voters were also being sent elsewhere.

Kumari Ghalley, a 43-year-old Rogers Park resident had walked to the library expecting to vote at her traditional polling place. Instead, she was told her polling place was now a 10-minute walk away at Paschen Park.

“They sent me there but actually this place is easy for me,” Ghalley said of her old polling place, later adding: “I cannot walk long distances.”

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Kumari Ghalley holds a notice letting her know her polling place in Rogers Park changed for the midterm election on Nov. 8, 2022. Tessa Weinberg / WBEZ

Due to the redrawn ward map and precinct consolidation required by state law, nearly half of Chicago’s voters have a newly assigned polling place this Election Day, said Max Bever, director of public information for the Chicago Board of Elections. Registered voters were mailed cards informing them of their new polling location and the Board of Elections said it was spending 10 times what it spent last year on print and digital advertising to inform voters.

Sixteen precincts were cut in the 49th Ward, which includes Rogers Park. That’s a roughly 48.5% decrease from the 33 in the June primary election and the sixth-largest percent decrease of the city’s 50 wards.

A short distance away at the Eugene Field Elementary School polling place, Shetelia Lee was watching voters run into the same problem all morning. Lee, who had been canvassing outside since polls opened at 6 a.m., said frustrated voters complained they hadn’t received notification of the change and were now trying to find their new polling place while taking time off work.

“I shouldn’t have to travel around the world to check a box,” Lee said. “It makes no sense to me.”

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Shetelia Lee canvassed outside of Eugene Field Elementary School in Rogers Park on Tuesday. She saw frustrated voters learn their polling place had changed. Tessa Weinberg / WBEZ

Despite the hassle, voters were trying to make it work. Donna Washington is a 70-year-old Rogers Park resident who says her polling place has changed frequently over the years. She just learned Tuesday morning that her polling place may have changed again after her daughter went to vote and was told to go to a new location.

While the changes can make it feel “like some type of sabotage,” Washington said she still plans to vote — even if she is sent to a new spot.

“I’ll go to that place because they’re not going to stop me from voting,” Washington said. “But at the same time, I don’t appreciate it.”

There were 946 polling places Tuesday — 97 fewer than during the June primary and nearly 40% fewer precincts. Bever said the city hopes to have closer to 1,000 polling places for the February municipal elections.

Fewer precincts meant the city was able to better staff election judges. Only a handful of polling places were delayed in opening Tuesday, compared to 56 in the June primary election, Bever said. In about two dozen precincts there was confusion around election judges only handing voters one ballot rather than both “Ballot A” and “Ballot B.” Bever recommended any voter encountering the issue call Election Central at 312-269-7870 to log the issue.

Turnout

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, about 571,000 ballots had been cast in Chicago, according to election officials. That’s 37% of registered voters. In the previous gubernatorial election in 2018, voter turnout in Chicago reached 60.7%. Statewide across Illinois it reached 57%.

On Monday night, 158,963 ballots were from early voting and 110,822 had been sent by mail. That’s about 42,000 below the number during the midterm elections four years ago — the last year without a presidential election. Properly postmarked vote-by-mail ballots will continue to be counted if received by Nov. 22.

But the over 208,000 vote-by-mail applications received by the Chicago Board of Elections for Tuesday’s election is the second-highest number after the just over half a million applications requested during the November 2020 presidential election, Bever said.

“That was at the height of the pandemic. That was at the height of use of vote-by-mail,” Bever said. “But I think 2022’s numbers, and especially the amount of applications we’ve seen for this general election, show that vote-by-mail is still quite popular and here to stay.”

Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said the pandemic introduced many voters to the convenience of voting by mail. Statewide, more than 2 million voters opted to vote-by-mail in 2020, making up about one-third of the vote that year.

“Prior to that, we had never had more than 9.2% of the vote cast by mail,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich also pointed to a new state law that went into effect in August that allowed Illinois voters to opt into permanently voting by mail as another factor contributing to the method’s popularity this election.

Voter intimidation and threats

Election officials across the country went into Election Day with heightened attention to threats to workers and voters. Chicago Police Department Superintendent David Brown said during a news conference Friday that officers would check each of the city’s polling places and provide security at locations where voting equipment is stored.

Voter intimidation was on 32-year-old Aja Augustus’ mind when she came to vote Tuesday. But Augustus said despite feeling nervous, she felt confident any issues would be far from Chicago.

“In my area, I feel like a lot of people are very welcoming and not going to intimidate you, no matter who you’re going to vote for,” Augustus said, “because it’s everyone’s right to vote.”

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Erich, Robyn (right) and Charlie Parker (center) outside of the Welles Park polling place on Nov. 8, 2022. Tessa Weinberg / WBEZ

At Welles Park in Lincoln Square, a steady trickle of voters came to cast their ballot in the hours after polls opened. It was 27-year-old Natalie Cunningham’s first time ever casting a ballot in person after moving from Oregon. She said she was “pleasantly surprised” she was able to register to vote just a few weeks ago.

The quick process is what made Erich and Robyn Parker choose to cast their ballot there on Election Day rather than the long lines they encountered before Tuesday across the street at the Sulzer Library, which is serving as an early voting site.

Robyn Parker, 46, said they might consider signing up to receive mail ballots permanently the next election, but “it loses a little bit when you’re trying to teach the kids what their role is.” The Parkers brought along their 7-year-old daughter, Charlie Parker, to show her the impact of voting. Her school, which serves as a polling place, moved to remote classes for the day.

For Charlie, getting the “I voted” stickers were the most rewarding part.

Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ. Follow @tessa_weinberg.