A New Normal: Pandemic Voting in Illinois

 /  Oct. 30, 2020, 2:55 p.m.


Erik Hersman

On March 17, just days after Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants to shut down, Illinois’s presidential primary proceeded amidst growing local and national concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many Chicago precincts were stretched thin, and poll workers were forced to work without adequate cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer or safety precautions. Illinois was one of several states that had proceeded with its primary amidst COVID-related fears, as Pritzker stressed that — despite his other calls for tighter statewide restrictions — “democracy….must go on.” 

Even amidst the confusion, Illinois primary turnout remained comparable to previous elections. While only 28 percent of registered voters cast their ballot on March 17th, four of the last six presidential primaries in Illinois also saw turnout under 30 percent. While there was an uptick in mail-in voting and lower turnout in some individual counties, the Illinois presidential primary took place in a completely different world than this November’s election; at that point, to many voters in the city, the pandemic was thought of as more of a threat to toilet paper stocks and international travelers than to their health and safety. 

With new safety guidelines for in-person poll workers and targeted messages urging voters to vote early or by mail, voters in Illinois are now seriously weighing their voting options. Already, both the Illinois State Board of Elections and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners have seen an unprecedented surge in mail-in ballot requests, while many early voting locations have also faced lines of voters stretching around the block. 

With Election Day just around the corner, the number of Illinoians who will cast their ballot in-person on Election Day looks to be starkly lower than in previous elections. Recent trends in mail-in ballot applications and early voting indicate that voters are balancing their political interests with an unprecedented pandemic environment. 

Mixed Signals and Competing Messages

Just four days after Illinois’s primary, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order went into effect. Soon after, schools announced a shift to remote learning for the remainder of the year, and Pritzker issued a statewide mask mandate in early May. Officials also begin looking further ahead, grappling with questions of how to restructure Illinois’s November 3rd election. Pritzker, backed by Illinois’s General Assembly, pushed as early as April for an expansion of mail-in voting capacity statewide. In June, Pritzker signed a bill implementing a host of measures for November 3rd’s election, including a provision to send vote-by-mail applications to all previous voters, increased accountability measures for ballot signature verification, and an expansion of early voting hours. By early summer, Illinois seemed to be ahead of the curve, anticipating that the presidential election would look very different from previous years. 

National rhetoric took a completely different turn. President Trump leaned into many voters’ fears regarding mail-in voting. Not only has Trump made countless unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballot fraud, he even instructed his supporters at a rally in North Carolina to vote illegally — once by mail and again in person. He claimed that ballots have been dumped in rivers and in wastebaskets, that Democrats receive two ballots, and that mailmen are behind a secret scheme to sell ballots. This rhetoric cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in voting, making voting this November less accessible to all Americans. 

Pritzker has been quick to respond to the president’s fear mongering. He has assured Illinois voters that the President’s claims are baseless, citing the success of the state’s mail-in voting capabilities in previous elections. He has also informed voters of updated security measures, ensuring that poll watchers are held accountable at in-person polls. 

In Chicago, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has followed the governor with similar assurances. “We have had extensive, extensive experience with vote by mail, and we just don’t have the problems that some other sources are relating,” Chicago Board of Elections Chairwoman Marisel Hernandez said. While there have been some hiccups in the vote-by-mail process already, election officials assure voters that these are due to the transition in scale of ballot processing capabilities, not a long-term indicator of fraud. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has even gone as far as to call President Trump and Republicans “enemies of democracy,” mounting a “full-on assault” by limiting accessibility to vote-by-mail options. Despite national rhetoric, Illinois election officials are finishing the work they started in April: making sure voters in Illinois have access to a myriad of accessible voting options this November. 

A Myriad of Voting Options

Voters across the country have been given three voting options this November: mail-in, early in-person, and Election Day voting. In Illinois, mail-in and early voting allows voters to cast their ballot from home without needing a reason for being “absent” on Election Day (also known as “no excuse” absentee voting). Many early voting sites opened on Oct. 1, giving voters over a month to cast their ballot before Election Day. On Election Day, voters can cast their ballots as long as they arrive at their polling precinct by 7 p.m. 

While many voters are remaining cautious and are opting for alternative voting options, there also seems to be unexpected enthusiasm, as mail-in and early voting turnout continues to surge well ahead of Election Day. As of Oct. 26,  Illinois has received nearly 2.3 million mail-in ballot applications, over one-third of turnout in previous presidential election years. On Illinois’s very first day of voting, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that three times as many voters turned out this year, as compared to 2016. These numbers indicate a definitive shift in how voters are approaching this election. Why are voters making the choice to mail in their ballots, or waiting up to three hours in an early voting line, rather than just casting their ballots on Election Day? The answer lies in a combination of pandemic fears and political engagement, creating an unprecedented voting landscape. 

Mail-In Ballots

Since 2010, Illinois mail-in ballots have been on the rise, especially in the Chicagoland area. Hernandez, Chicago’s Board of Elections Chair, was quick to assure voters that the Chicago Board has over a decade of experience in handling mail-in ballots, indicating that they are well-prepared for the expected deluge. Voters have certainly been assured this year; for previous elections—presidential and non-presidential—turnout by mail has peaked only around 9 percent.

Despite the push for mail-in voting options on both the city and state level, election officials have still faced several challenges, including misinformation about ballot return dates, misprinted ballots in one downstate jurisdiction, and delayed ballot deliveries. Nevertheless, voters in Illinois do not appear to have taken these missteps as evidence of otherwise unsubstantiated claims that mail-in voting is riddled with fraudulent schemes. As the most socially distanced option available, many voters are choosing this year to swap the voting booth for their kitchen table. 

Early Voting

In addition to a surge in mail-in ballot applications, Illinois has been breaking early voting records this October. Polling locations in Chicago’s Wards opened Oct. 14, following the opening of many downtown and suburban locations’ on Oct. 1. Many locations are open every day of the week, making it easy for voters who are bogged down by work schedules and family commitments to vote when it is most convenient for them. Additionally, early voting locations have secure drop boxes for voters to place their mail-in ballots. 

As with mail-in voting, voters seem to be taking full advantage of early voting options. At the Loop Super Site, nearly 1,500 voters showed up on the first day of voting, creating a line trailing down the sidewalk. By mid-October, Illinois was breaking records for early voting turnout, with roughly 176,000 early votes cast, nearly double the number seen by mid-October, 2016. 

Why are some voters opting for the ballot box instead of mailbox? The Chicago Tribune reported in early October that some voters were still skeptical that their mail-in ballot would be processed, given national concern over Postal Service delays. Furthermore, emerging news about pending lawsuits regarding mail-in voting rules has left many voters uneasy about voting by mail, especially given the history of voter disenfranchisement when it comes to signature verification and postal delays. Lorraine Leister, a Glendale resident who chose to vote early, reported to the Tribune that no one left the three hour long line at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton, IL. “Everybody seemed determined to vote today.” she said.

Election Day Voting

Given these unprecedented circumstances, it is unclear what Election Day will look like in Illinois this year. While visiting a polling place on Nov. 3 may be how most people imagine the presidential election, it seems this has become a last resort for many Illinois residents. However, for many Americans, voting on Election Day gives them more confidence that their vote will be counted. The Washington Post reported that only 3 of 10 Americans said they were “very confident” that their vote would accurately be counted, compared to nearly 7 of 10 who say the same for Election Day voting. In addition, there is a significant racial disparity when it comes to how voters choose to vote. Among Black Americans, 71 percent of Black voters say they would rather vote on Election Day, while only 58 percent of White voters share this preference. These gaps in voter confidence may still drive Illinois voters to the polls on Election Day, rather than to the mail-box or early ballot box. 

Looking Ahead

As election officials continue to adjust to unprecedented circumstances this year, it seems statewide messaging and preparation has so far been effective. Many voters have already cast their ballots, making full use of mail-in and early voting options. 

For those working on Election Day, both the Illinois State Board of Elections and Chicago Board of Election Commissioners have taken significant steps to ensure that everyone participating in Election Day voting— both election judges and in-person voters—stays safe. On top of lower turnout, there will be more safety precautions, with election judges equipped with masks, face shields, and working behind plexiglass shields. 

Challenges still remain: Illinois is still facing a severe poll worker shortage and ballot processing concerns. Illinois is also one of several states that cannot count mail-in ballots until 7 p.m. on Election night, meaning that the deluge of mail-in ballots will require unprecedented ballot processing capabilities. Official results may take days to finally be published. Nevertheless, Illinois voters have a myriad of options to vote this year. Based on health vulnerabilities, proximity to voting locations, schedules and personal circumstances, voters should have access to at least some form of voting either before or on Election Day. Despite longer wait times, pandemic fears, and uncertainty surrounding Election night results, one thing is clear: voters have taken full advantage of their options thus far and are finding ways to vote in this year’s “new normal.” 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Erik Hersman and can be found here.

Maggie Rivera


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