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An Illinois primary like no other: Low turnout, poll worker shortage expected amid coronavirus

Monday, March 16, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by By Rick Pearson, Hal Dardick and Bill Ruthhart

Illinoisans readied for a primary Election Day like no other Tuesday, with fear of the spread of coronavirus raising concerns of low turnout and too few poll workers as government leaders exhorted healthy voters to do their part to move democracy forward at the ballot box.

With polls open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., the push to get people to vote came despite new federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to avoid crowds of 50 people or more.

Chicago election officials stressed safety and encouraged voters to practice social distancing, even offering alternative less-crowded voting sites. But they acknowledged a “tsunami” of calls from poll workers opting not to show up at polling places and took the unusual step of urgently asking healthy people to show up and serve as judges.

“We are in an untenable position at this point, and we understand and refuse to punish the judges whose age or health condition might prevent them from going out,” said Marisel Hernandez, chair of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. The board, she said, was “bracing for the most difficult election, under the most trying of times.”

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot, speaking to reporters, sought to reassure the voting public, saying an “all-call for volunteers” resulted in “more than sufficient election judges at the ready to staff the polling places.” The result, she said, “has been nothing short of phenomenal.”

“We are ready to make sure this election goes off as smoothly as possible under the circumstances,” she said, adding a “SWAT team of mayor’s office personnel” will be deployed to troubleshoot problems.

“I want everyone to know that Chicago’s voting system is safe,” Lightfoot said. “I want to encourage everyone to go out and vote.”

Asked about the CDC guidelines limiting crowds, Lightfoot said that she had consulted with city health officials and that the short time it takes to vote fits into exceptions on public gatherings and social distancing.

“It takes about five minutes to vote. What the CDC has consistently said is that social distancing means not being in close proximity to folks for longer than 10 minutes. So, I think we are practicing to the letter the CDC guidance in the way we will be carrying out this election. I don’t have any concerns about that,” she said.

In Springfield, even as he mandated the cancellation of any gathering of 50 or more people in the state per the CDC guideline, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he felt “good” about the decision to continue with Election Day.

“We have to have our elections continue, in my opinion. This is the right thing to do. Our

democracy needs to go on. We need to elect leaders. If we canceled these elections, you know, when would you have an election?” he told reporters in Springfield.

“But the most important thing is we’re taking every precaution,” he said. “Every time somebody goes and votes on a voting machine that people are touching, it’s being wiped down. We have guidance to all the election judges to make sure to maintain social separation distance. We’re making sure that we have sanitizer at locations that people are voting at.”

People cast their ballots at an early voting site in the Loop on March 16, 2020, amid coronavirus concerns.(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

There also were concerns about voter confusion of where to vote after polling places across the state were moved to avoid places such as nursing homes and privately owned buildings where owners did not want to risk the spread of coronavirus to residents or employees. Officials urged voters to check the websites of the local election authority for new polling locations before heading out to vote.

For Tuesday, temperatures in the Chicago area were forecast in the mid-40s with partly sunny skies. Voters will be choosing Democratic and Republican presidential favorites and nominating delegates, as well as nominees for U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, all 118 Illinois House seats and 20 of 59 state Senate seats.

Voters also will be choosing nominees for county state’s attorneys and Circuit Court clerks. Cook County voters also will pick a nominee for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court.

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But the threat of the coronavirus clouded the view of election officials and politicians on voter enthusiasm and turnout, despite being a presidential election year featuring a battle for the Democratic nomination between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I wish it wasn’t the case, but I think we’re going to have fewer folks getting out — particularly folks who are very concerned,” said Marie Newman, who is challenging eight-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski in the Southwest Side and suburban 3rd Congressional District after losing to him two years ago by 2 percentage points.

The previous record low for a presidential primary since 1942 in Chicago was 24.5% in 2012, when then-President Barack Obama’s nomination was certain while Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were battling for the Republican nomination.

In suburban Cook County, where turnout records go back to 1990, the record low was in 2000, when 23.1% of registered voters went to the polls. In that year, Al Gore was cruising to the Democratic nomination while George W. Bush and John McCain were competing for the GOP nod.

Elizabeth Olin casts her ballot while wearing a mask amid coronavirus concerns at an early voting site in the Loop on March 16, 2020.(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

This year, election authorities across the state had urged concerned voters to get vote-by-mail applications, which must be postmarked by Tuesday to count, or take advantage of early voting.

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In the city, 171,000 people had voted early by the end of the day Monday. The 25,781 Chicago voters who used early voting Monday was a single-day record for a primary election, city officials said. That total was a record for a presidential primary, topping the previous high of a bit more than 140,000 in 2016, but less than the nearly 224,000 who voted early in the November 2018 general election.

Nearly 118,000 people requested mail-in ballots, more than triple the number from four years ago and breaking a record set in 1944, when World War II was disrupting countless lives, and there were 116,000 vote-by-mail requests in that year’s general election.

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In suburban Cook County, early voting stood at about 147,000 on Monday morning, which James Scalzitti, spokesman for county Clerk Karen Yarbrough, said was a record for a presidential primary. In the general election four years ago, nearly 316,000 voters cast early ballots.

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Mail-in ballot requests in suburban Cook neared 59,000, compared with a then-record 33,000 four years ago.

Statewide, as of Monday, 504,000 early votes had been cast and 294,000 mail ballots sent to voters. The day before the 2016 presidential primary, there were 400,000 early votes cast and 160,000 mail ballots sent, State Board of Elections officials said.

Four years ago, nearly 3.6 million ballots were cast in the presidential primary, representing 46.5% turnout. That year saw battles for the presidential nomination in both parties, but of the total ballots cast more than 2 million or 58% were Democratic.

The coronavirus threat quickly shut down traditional campaign activity, including large rallies and in-person door-to-door campaigning. Instead, candidates resorted to social media and robocalls to get the message out.

For Biden and Sanders, the choice was to hold virtual rallies and town halls streamed over the internet. Each had livestreaming events planned Monday night.

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With 155 delegates at stake in Illinois, Biden entered the day with 894 compared with Sanders with 743. A total of 1,991 delegates are needed to win the nomination. Biden also has consolidated the backing of Illinois’ Democratic political establishment, including Pritzker and Lightfoot.

Another contest being closely watched is first-term Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s bid for renomination against former Assistant State’s Attorney and military veteran Bill Conway, former federal prosecutor Donna More and former Chicago Ald. Bob Fioretti.

Chris Henao casts his ballot while wearing a mask amid coronavirus concerns at an early voting site in the Loop on March 16, 2020. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

The race has found Foxx’s efforts to sell her platform of restorative justice countered by criticism over her handling of the case against Jussie Smollett, the actor accused of staging a racist and homophobic attack against himself more than a year ago in Chicago.

Foxx’s office dropped 16 charges against the actor last March. But a special Cook County grand jury last month indicted Smollett on six counts of disorderly conduct.

Conway, the son of a billionaire, has used family money to air attack ads against her. But Foxx has gained support from social justice advocates as well as former Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

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Cook County voters also will weigh in on the Democratic nomination for a state Supreme Court seat where Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., is seeking election to the seat he was appointed to in 2018. He faces six opponents, including five state Appellate Court judges and a private attorney.

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Statewide, Republicans will choose among four contenders vying to challenge Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin, who is seeking a fifth term.

In addition to the contest in the 3rd Congressional District, the west and northwest suburban and exurban 14th Congressional District features seven Republicans vying to challenge first-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood in the fall.

And in the west and north suburban 6th Congressional District, which like the 14th flipped to Democratic hands in 2018, two Republicans are competing to take on freshman U.S. Rep. Sean Casten.

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