Skip to contents

As City Sees ‘Extremely Low’ Voter Turnout, Pritzker Blamed For Rejecting Vote-By-Mail Option

Chicago had asked if the state could call off in-person voting and have everyone vote by mail. Pritzker's team refused, and now Chicago's seeing "extremely low" turnout.

A polling place in March.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
  • Credibility:

LOGAN SQUARE — Chicago is seeing extremely low turnout this Election Day — and many have questioned why Illinois’ election was not postponed.

But on Tuesday, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections said the board told the governor’s team they wanted to call off all in-person voting because voters were afraid of coronavirus. Instead, they suggested, everyone could vote by mail.

The governor’s team refused. The governor later said the city made requests that were impossible, and refused assistance the state offered.

Now, turnout is “extremely” low in Chicago, with just 198,000 people casting ballots in person as of 5 p.m. When mail-in ballots and early voting numbers are counted, officials expected turnout to be around 35 percent.

At the same time, there’s been better turnout among people who voted early and voted by mail: Nearly 118,000 vote-by-mail ballots have come in and more than 171,000 people voted early — including 25,781 just on Monday.

RELATED: Voting In Chicago 2020: Here’s Everything You Need To Know For Election Day

Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said the board made its request to the state on March 11 — the same day coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

The illness has spread to Illinois, where there have been 160 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday afternoon. There has been one death.

Other states, including Louisiana and Ohio, decided to postpone their primary elections to prevent spread of the virus.

“We predicted there would be fear among voters, there would be legitimate concerns among our voters and we would lose our polling places,” Allen said.

Chicago’s election officials estimated they’d have to move 24 precinct polling locations.

But the governor’s legal team shut down the board’s request, saying having to move 24 locations was “not that significant,” Allen said.

Chicago’s officials ended up having to move 200 precincts, creating confusion that was frustrating voters on Tuesday morning. Some said they went to a polling place only to learn it had been moved — and there wasn’t information posted about the new location. Others said their polling place wasn’t open yet when they arrived.

Allen said about 90 percent of precincts were “up and running at the start of the day,” and he didn’t anticipate any polling places would have to stay open.

And regardless of those issues, turnout would normally be higher. Presidential primaries typically attract larger crowds, but only about half the amount of people had turned up to vote Tuesday afternoon as had during the 2016 primary.

Allen said it was an “interesting turn of events” that Pritzker’s team had insisted the election go on with in-person voting even as the governor has banned events of 50 or more people and shut down schools, restaurants and bars.

“There’s nothing magical about March 17 unless you’re St. Patrick. No one was gonna be elected today. These were nominations,” Allen said. But “we were caught over the last seven days in a cach-22 where we were not allowed to say anything because it could be viewed as voter suppression” if there was talk of delaying the election.

“… This is not just a concern about poll workers. It’s also a concern about voters.”

But Pritzker fired back during a briefing on coronavirus later in the day, saying it was “unquestionably” not in his legal power to do all vote-by-mail in Illinois.

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

Pritzker said the state had offered Chicago the use of the National Guard or 2,000 young volunteers to serve as poll workers, but Chicago’s election officials shut that down.

“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.


Coronavirus can be deadly, but the vast majority of cases have been mild. Those most at risk from the virus are people who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions.

Symptoms of coronavirus can appear two to 14 days after a person has been exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People with no symptoms may have the virus and spread it to others.

The virus spreads between people through coughing and sneezing, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

If you or someone else has difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, become confused, cannot be roused or develop a bluish face or lips, get immediate medical attention, according to the CDC.

How To Protect Yourself

The CDC only recommends those are already sick wear facemasks because they help you avoid spreading the virus.

Here’s what you can actually do to prevent getting ill:

  • The CDC and other officials have said people should wash their hands often, including before, during and after eating; after using the bathroom; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
    The CDC has a guide here for how to properly wash your hands. Remember: Wash with soap and water, scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you can’t wash your hands with soap and water, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth, with unwashed hands.
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces you touch frequently, like cellphones and light switches. Here are tips from the CDC.
  • Stay home when you’re sick and avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you have to sneeze with a tissue, throw it out immediately after using it, according to the CDC.

What To Do If You Think You’re Sick

Even if you’re not showing symptoms, the Chicago Department of Public Health recommends people coming from high-risk countries (here’s a CDC list) self-quarantine for 14 days after returning home.

If you do have symptoms of coronavirus, contact your primary doctor or a health care facility before going in. Explain your symptoms and tell them if you’ve come into close contact with anyone with coronavirus or traveled to an area where corona is widespread (here’s a CDC list) within the last 14 days, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

From there, the experts will work with your local health department to determine what to do and if you need to be tested for coronavirus, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

And, of course, if you think you’re sick with coronavirus, don’t risk exposing other people to the virus. Anyone who feels unwell has been advised to stay home.

Those with questions and concerns about coronavirus can call the Illinois Department of Public Health at 800-889-3931.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.