Primary vote counting in city stalled by coronavirus, but election officials expect it ‘should be just fine’

The board is closing up shop starting Friday and suspending the non-essential operations as the office tries to navigate coronavirus guidelines, board spokesman Jim Allen said.

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Hand sanitizer and stickers are set up at a First Ward polling place on Tuesday.

Hand sanitizer and stickers are set up at a First Ward polling place on Tuesday.

James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times file

The coronavirus did not stop the Illinois primary, but the global pandemic is forcing city election officials to shutter their offices and suspend the counting of primary ballots and some non-essential operations, including processing voter registration and mail in-ballot applications for the November election.

Ballot counting from Tuesday’s primary will resume Monday. The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has 21 days to certify the results of the election. To suspend ballot counting for longer than that would require the board’s executive director to sign off on it.

The board is closing up shop starting Friday and suspending the non-essential operations as the office tries to navigate coronavirus guidelines, board spokesman Jim Allen said.

The decision was made Thursday in a recorded conference call with the commissioners, Allen said.

Other operations that will be suspended for the time being include updating voters’ addresses.

For now the board is focusing on continuing to count ballots from Tuesday’s primary. The agency’s top lawyer said the brief suspension of counting on Friday and closing of the offices shouldn’t jeopardize that process.

In the event that “this virus ends up making it so that we cannot finish within 21 days, there is no penalty … in the election code that says that any of the ballots, the votes, or the results will be spoiled or invalidated in any way,” Adam Lasker, the board’s general counsel, said in the Thursday call.

“We’re going to try our very best under these circumstances to meet that 21-day deadline, but part of the problem is we’re supposed to be doing social distancing. We might need to spread things out, and we’re searching for space within the building that could be available for that,” Lasker said in the video. “In the event that things get slowed down a little bit, I just want the board to understand that it is my legal opinion that if we finish on the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th day, that should be just fine.”

Commissioners will use the 21-day deadline as a goal, but if it looks like they won’t meet that goal, they’ll go to the Cook County Circuit Court to get an extension, similar to when the board went to court to be allowed to continue using some early voting sites for Election Day.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s office has reduced staffing to only essential employees, though it hasn’t suspended all election activity in the suburban areas it oversees, spokesman James Scalzitti said.

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