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Voter Turnout For Primary Takes Deep Dive Amid Coronavirus, Polling Issues

There was record early turnout for the primary election, but few people turned out on Election Day.

A polling place at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St. in Lakeview.
Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
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LOGAN SQUARE — Voter turnout fell sharply this Election Day amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Chicago set a record for the number of people who applied to voted by mail — 118,000 — and for the number of people who voted early: 171,000.

But the early turnout didn’t translate to the polls on Tuesday, when just 282,333 people had cast a ballot by 7 p.m.

In comparison, the 2016 primary election saw a turnout of 810,823, or 53.52 percent of registered voters.

The coronavirus — which has been found in at least 160 people in Illinois — loomed large before Tuesday, with some saying Illinois should delay the election as other states have done to prevent spread of the virus.

But Gov. JB Pritzker pushed on, insisting the election should not be delayed and questioning when it would be held if not March 17.

Chicago’s officials had to scramble to find new locations for 200 polling places, in part because many polls are usually at nursing homes, but those residents are particularly at risk from coronavirus.

And officials had to shore up more election judges and volunteers to help work the polls since those positions are often held by the elderly.

That made for some delays on Election Day morning, with Chicagoans reporting their polling place was closed and they didn’t know where to go or the proper machinery wasn’t set up.

But about 90 percent of precincts were up and running at the start of the day, said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

“We got off to a decent start, a slow start to the day, in what could be a very low turnout overall on Election Day,” Allen said.

There were other struggles, too: People reported the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners site crashing when they tried to look up their new polling place. Others said they were forced to crowd by other people waiting to vote despite their fears of coronavirus or they weren’t provided with hand sanitizer or sanitization wipes to use when voting.

“Things fall through the cracks, especially in this uncertain time. I feel like everyone had all of the best of intentions to try and protect community health and allow people the opportunity to vote, but this is the most scary thing — this breakdown in being able to participate in democracy because of this virus,” said Aaron Miller, a River West resident who had to try four times before he was able to successfully cast a ballot on Tuesday.

And some people simply refused to vote in person, with many saying they’d applied for a vote-by-mail ballot but it didn’t arrive in time — and they didn’t want to or couldn’t risk exposure to coronavirus by heading to the polls.

Allen pointed the finger at Pritzker during the day, saying the city’s election officials had suggested earlier this month the state cancel in-person voting in favor of doing it by mail because people would be afraid to vote.

The governor’s legal team refused, Allen said.

But Pritzker fired back later, saying city officials hadn’t stepped up to the plate because they’d rejected his office’s suggestion of using the National Guard or young volunteers to work the polls.

And Pritzker said it was “unquestionably” not in his legal power to do all vote-by-mail in Illinois.

Still, critics said officials put people at risk by not postponing or making changes for Election Day.

But turnout wasn’t all bad: It was notable that young people headed to the polls in large numbers, Allen said.

As of 7 p.m., 88,540 people aged 25-34 had cast a ballot — that age group being second only to people aged 55-64, of which 90,201 had voted.