Even in ordinary times, the American electoral system presents a strange business model: a service offered in a dozen languages — including Urdu, Gujarati and Bengali — to customers from 18 to 108, whose millions of choices must be immediately tabulated by seasonal workers. The fate of the nation hinges on the process being done correctly — plus, in a crowning surreal touch, patrons, though adults, expect a sticker when they’re done, like children visiting the doctor.
Now add a global pandemic.
“COVID changed everything,” Marisel Hernandez, chair of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said last week.
The March 17 primary was a dry run which saw city and state feuding up to the last minute over whether to hold an election at all. New York canceled theirs, and 15 other states postponed. Holding Illinois’ primary proved educational.
“We learned a lot,” Hernandez said. “Every election has its own obstacles, but March was the most challenging we ever had. We had locations closing. Owners refusing to let us use their places for polling. Judges canceling. As a result of that election, we learned how valuable, how important early voting and voting by mail is.”
In the primary, the city rolled out new touch screens, ballot scanners and tabulation software. Before anyone had heard of coronavirus, worried election officials tried to guard against Election Day malfunctions by ramping up early voting. Now early voting is standard: For the first time in history, more Americans voted early than are expected to cast a ballot on Election Day.
“My office has received more than 550,000 requests for mail-in ballots in this election, five times greater than 2016,” said Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough. “We’re on pace to shatter all previous records in suburban Cook County. Despite the tremendous challenges that COVID-19 has imposed on all of us ... voters are not going to allow this virus to suppress their right to vote.”
Lori Byars, a volunteer with World Central Kitchen, handing out sandwiches outside the city’s Super Site at 191 N. Clark on Thursday, was observing the line all last week.
“Really not long at all,” she said. “Just steady, and it moves really fast,”
On Oct. 1, the first day of early in-person voting, 1,500 people showed up at 191 N. Clark St., an abandoned Walgreen’s across from the Thompson Center. With 58 voting machines, workers scrambled to sanitize equipment.
“A lot of cleaning,” said administrator Jackie Garmon. “Cleaning pens, clipboards, the cards they use to vote with. This is a totally different election than we’ve ever had.”
Medical masks, latex gloves, hand sanitizer and various types of barriers all cost money. Deputy Cook County Clerk Edmund Michalowski estimates the county’s COVID-related election expenses at $3 million.
The even safer option was mail-in, though processing was a challenge. An enormous new Election Operations Center opened in Cicero, where staffers feed mail-in ballots through scanners; they will have processed 350,000 mail-in ballots by Election Day.
COVID-19 will wane, eventually, but measures to fight it will linger.
“It made us realize how important it is to follow these safety protocols,” said Hernandez. “This is something that will be standard from now on. We want voters to feel safe. Their health should not be at stake when they come to vote.”
Some who traditionally vote on Election Day decided to fulfill their obligation early.
“I’ve never early voted. I always try to go the day of,” Maya Macon, 28, a health care worker, said as she waited to vote downtown last week. “But this is one of the most important elections of my lifetime, and I want to make sure my vote counted.”