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2020 Election Could Change The Way Chicago Votes Forever After ‘Huge Success’ Of Mail-In, Early Voting

The city's focus on vote-by-mail, early voting and super sites proved to be successful, and secured drop boxes were wildly popular with voters.

Voters prepare to cast their ballots Tuesday at Monroe Elementary in Logan Square.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — This election — with its focus on mail-in and early voting and with a super site open to all — went off without any major hitches.

And that could mean elections in Chicago have been forever changed.

Officials urged people to vote by mail or early vote instead of coming in on Election Day due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, people who volunteered as poll workers had to do all their training online instead of in person, and the volunteers skewed younger and had less experience than in years past.

Despite all those changes, overall turnout was higher, Chicago shattered its records for mail-in and early voting and Election Day went — mostly — smoothly and quietly.

“We think this election is going to likely change not only how elections are run possibly in Illinois, but in other jurisdictions around the country, as well,” Jim Allen, Chicago Board of Elections spokesman, said during a call with reporters Tuesday evening. “We’re all laboratories and all looking for best practices we can find. And this has been a very challenging election but, at the same time, a very educational one.”

More than 419,000 vote-by-mail ballots had come in by Tuesday morning, and more are expected to arrive in the days ahead. That more than quadrupled the previous record of 94,000 mail-in ballots cast during the 2016 presidential election.

And more than 364,000 people voted early, breaking the previous record — also set during the 2016 presidential election — of 325,000 early votes.

Officials in the city, including the Chicago Board of Elections, heavily encouraged voters to use vote-by-mail or early voting so they could avoid Election Day crowds due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time, Illinois residents were informed via mail they could apply to vote by mail. And officials set up dozens of secured drop boxes throughout Chicago where people could safely leave their mail-in ballots if they were afraid of sending them through the postal service.

The drop boxes proved hugely popular; during the final week of voting, when more than 40 percent of all mail-in ballots were submitted, just 20 of them were sent by mail while 80 percent were submitted through a drop box, Allen said.

“Voters love the drop boxes,” Allen said. “We think the drop boxes are a vital component to making sure that it goes directly from to the voter to the election authority. … Overall, the program was very successful. … This has been a huge success.”

Officials expect many mail-in and early voters will use those methods in future elections because they had a positive experience, Allen said.

The city also opened a super site for voters at the United Center. While normally voters have to look up their precinct polling place and go there, any Chicagoan was allowed to vote at the United Center.

That proved popular, too: The United Center saw the biggest turnout of any voting site, and it had more than twice as many voters as the next-most popular voting site, Allen said.

Election officials might want to maintain precinct polling places for the future, Allen said, but in-person voting could still look differently based on how successful this year’s changes were.

“… Whether or not we have individual precinct polling places and whether we go more and more toward vote centers in each ward, that remains to be seen,” Allen said. “It’s a matter of how much we also want to continue to spend on elections. These are budgetary issues as well as public policy issues.”

The emphasis on early voting and mail-in voting meant polling places were quieter and saw fewer voters on Election Day, but turnout overall was strong, with 1.1 million to 1.2 million votes expected to be counted.

“We’re grateful to all the voters who used vote by mail and early voting, took advantage of those options,” Allen said. “… That made everything [Tuesday] go that more smoothly.”

The polling places themselves saw no major issues, Allen said. Some had to be moved or had slight machine issues, but that did not stop people from voting. Unlike in years past, no polling places had to stay open late due to issues.

Also a rarity: No election judges were removed, even though a significant number of people who volunteered this year were doing it for the first time and had to do all their raining online.

The Board of Elections was able to wrangle together a full team of 13,500 volunteers — including backup judges — compared to just 10,500 for the March primary.

Allen said volunteers this year tended to skew younger, with the biggest group of them being people ages 18-24. Officials had encouraged young people to sign up as election judges since COVID-19 is more likely to have a severe impact on older people, who have previously been more likely to volunteer as election judges.

“This [election], all things considered, I think we will be marked as having worked out,” Allen said. “But whether it’s the best way — that’s for other people to decide.”

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