Turn-out low but steady in Purell Primary

With the coronavirus pandemic rattling the globe, financial markets roiling, schools and restaurants closed, Illinois manages to hold a primary election.

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Eli Hollander, right, finds out that the Croatian Cultural Center isn’t the right place for him to vote in Tuesday’s primary. The coronavirus prompted many changes in polling venues that sent some voters and campaign workers scrambling.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

The shock of Tuesday’s election is how ordinary it was.

Considering all that is going on around the March 17 statewide vote — a global viral pandemic, a stock market meltdown, schools cancelled statewide, bars and restaurants closed — Tuesday’s primary election proceeded with surprising smoothness, at least in places such as the Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln. All the judges who were supposed to show up did show up. Voters came too.

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“Aside from hand sanitizer everywhere and wiping down the pens, it’s business as usual,” said Colby Krouse, an election judge. “Lots of wipes.”

Sure, there were problems. There always are. Reports of long waits, confusion and late openings from various locations. A major challenge was with election judges. Retirees like to pick up a little extra cash and perform a civic good by serving as judges. But the threat of the virus, which is particularly dangerous for older people, prompted more than 800 judges to bow out at the last moment.

“I set this whole place up,” said Jim Maivald, surveying a roomful of voting stations, chairs and tables at the Lincolnwood Community Center, 4170 Morse. “Usually there are four teams.”

Some judges overcame their fears and showed up anyway.

“I’m very worried about it,” said Vicky Plange, speaking through a mask at the Croatian Cultural Center of Chicago, 2845 W. Devon. “But I’m taking precautions.”

“Somebody has to do this,” added Cindy Gray-Lewis. “It’s our civic duty, to represent Chicago and Illinois.”

Chicago, a city that has had its share of difficult and wild elections, from the one after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, to the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the Pineapple Primary of 1928, punctuated by 60 bombings. (”pineapple” was gangland slang for a hand grenade).

Successfully conducting an election — perhaps Tuesday’s should be remembered as the Purell Primary — is not typically a source of civic pride. But managing statewide voting was more than Ohio was willing to risk — they canceled theirs, the governor overruling a court that ordered him to hold the election. Florida and Arizona also held primaries.

Judges who dropped out in Chicago were often replaced by high school students like Noah Kern, 17, who attends North Side College Prep.

“Obviously I’ve taken precautions to protect myself and others,” said Kern, referring to his mask. He can’t vote, yet. But being on his high school’s debate team has made him aware of political issues. His participation in the electoral process should not be taken as an endorsement of it occurring under these circumstances.

“The election should have been canceled,” he said. ”The number one issue is to protect the health of voters.”

Teen judges earned high marks from experienced poll workers.

“They’re wonderful judges and learn very quickly,” said Vickie Simmons, an election coordinator working at the Warren Park Field House, 6601 N. Western Ave.

Vicki Simmons, an election judge coordinator, said about 8 high school students were working Tuesday as judges at the Warren Park Field House. “They’re wonderful,” she said.

Vickie Simmons, an election judge coordinator, said about 8 high school students were working Tuesday as judges at the Warren Park Field House. “They’re wonderful,” she said.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Some voters wore winter gloves or latex gloves while voting. A very few were so concerned about interacting with strangers, it made them surly.

“They’re scared,” said election judge Lawanda Platt, of the voters who upbraided her for standing too close or for “not changing gloves” after every ballot. “It’s the fear. It makes it worse.”

Turn-out was light, but that was also affected by heavier-than-usual early and mail-in voting. Some saw no reason to alter habits of a lifetime.

“I always vote,” said John Welch, a retiree, after casting his ballot inside the showroom at Napleton’s Northwestern Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, 5950 N. Western Ave.

Outside, Mike Brown, an attorney, sat enjoying the sunshine while waiting for his Jeep Grand Cherokee to be returned from being serviced. He had no intention of stepping inside to vote.

“Social distancing: too many crowds,” he explained, adding that not voting serves “a higher purpose.”

And that is?

“Taking care of my family,” he said.

Undeterred by the coronavirus, John Welch casts his ballot, like usual, at Napleton’s Northwestern Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, 5950 N. Western Ave.

Undeterred by the coronavirus, John Welch casts his ballot, like usual, at Napleton’s Northwestern Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, 5950 N. Western Ave.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The car dealer viewers hosting an election as both good citizenship and good business.

“A warm, safe, friendly environment to come in and do your civic duty, as well as see what is new in the domestic car market,” said salesman Steve Bernard.

Nursing homes, common venues for polling in the past, have been barring relatives from visiting for fear of infecting residents, and were not about to welcome the general public to cast ballots. In the 33rd ward, according to committeeman Aaron Goldstein, the 22 voting sites in operation a month ago have been whittled down to 15, which was actually helpful because that solved the problem of not having enough equipment for all the locations.

Campaigning for re-election, he called Tuesday’s vote “about average” though voters he approached walking up to the polls were more skittish than usual.

“Most people keep their distance,” he said. “Tons of social distancing. I try to be as non-aggressive as possible.”

At that moment John Friedmann, president of the North River Commission came up. Instead of shaking hands, they bumped elbows.

“Nothing is ever going to be the same,” Goldstein said.

An elaborate system to allow voters to wait while maintaining a distance between each other was set up at the Warren Park Field House.

An elaborate system to allow voters to wait while maintaining a distance between each other was set up at the Warren Park Field House.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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