Coronavirus forces ‘entirely unprecedented’ Election Day scramble

“The number of election judges who have resigned is increasing,” Jim Allen said. “Sometimes they’ll just call and say casually ‘I’ve got something else I need to do’ but we suspect it’s all about the same thing. The concerns are real and valid.”

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Jugs of hand sanitizer and cans of Lysol greet voters in the March 17 Illinois primary election at the new Loop super site Thursday afternoon.

Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, jugs of hand sanitizer and cans of Lysol greet voters in the March 17 Illinois primary election at the new Loop super site at 191 N. Clark St., Thursday afternoon.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Scrambling to deal with an election for the city’s history books, officials are now trying to relocate 94 Election Day polling places in Chicago and “more than 32” in the Cook County suburbs as concerns over the coronavirus hit warp speed.

And growing numbers of election judges are pulling out of their assignments for next Tuesday’s primary election — 746 in suburban Cook County alone.

“It is entirely unprecedented in the history of Chicago elections, going back to 1837,” said Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

The number of Election Day switches has steadily ticked upward.Chicago precincts without polling places rose from 24 Thursday morning to 94 by evening.

“We are working with the city’s Office of Emergency Management in an attempt to resolve those issues so that we may deliver supplies to new locations by Sunday and Monday,” Allen said.

In the Cook County suburbs, more than 32 Election Day polling locations will need to be relocated, said James Scalzitti, a spokesman for Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough.Scalzitti said the number of polling locations needing to be moved had increased since Thursday morning, though he couldn’t provide an exact number by afternoon.

In Chicago, the latest relocations are largely happening at privately owned apartment buildings, churches and a variety of facilities that the city uses, Allen said. Nursing homes had been pulling out on Wednesday.

And unlike the day before, election judges are now opting to forego their duties, Allen said.

“The number of election judges who have resigned is increasing,” Allen said. “Sometimes they’ll just call and say casually‘I’ve got something else I need to do’ but we suspect it’s all about the same thing. The concerns are real and valid.”

To help head off an Election Day crunch, city election officials announced that early voting hours were being extended an hour over the weekend at Chicago sites. That’s now 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.And vote-by-mail applications were being accepted past the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline right up until midnight.

State officials did not immediately return requests for comment.

Joseph Medill

Joseph Medill

Sun-Times archives

As chaotic as the situation is, the coronavirus certainly does not mark the first time Chicago has held an election amidst a natural disaster.

The mayoral election of 1871 came just a month after the Great Chicago Fire, which killed an estimated 300 people and left behind 100,000 homeless and damages estimated at $200 million, according to The History Channel’s website. The city was under martial law for weeks.

Running on the “Fireproof” ticket, Joseph Medill won the November mayoral election on a promise of tougher building and fire codes.

“His victory might also be attributable to the fact that most of the city’s voting records were destroyed in the fire, so it was next to impossible to keep people from voting more than once,” according to history.com.

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