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Illinois voter turnout not among the casualties of COVID-19

In Illinois, 28.36% of registered voters cast ballots in the March 17 primary. While the voter turnout was relatively low, it was comparable to recent presidential primaries. Four of the previous six saw turnouts of less than 30 percent.

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on the table where residents check in to vote in the primary election inside of the Chicago High School for the Arts on March 17, 2020 in Chicago.
A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on the table where residents check in to vote in the primary election inside of the Chicago High School for the Arts on March 17, 2020 in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

SPRINGFIELD — Despite calls to postpone the election and concerns that cramped polling places and long lines could keep people away, Illinois voters still cast ballots in last month’s primary at a level that did not set any low-turnout records.

Illinois election officials are crediting mail-in balloting and early voting with keeping the numbers up.

In Illinois, 28.36% of registered voters cast ballots in the March 17 primary, which is the third-lowest turnout for a presidential primary over the past 40 years, according to the official canvas released Friday.

But while the voter turnout was relatively low, it was comparable to recent presidential primaries.

Four of the previous six presidential primaries saw turnouts of less than 30 percent. And this year’s turnout topped the 2012 presidential primary, which had a 23.2% turnout and 2000’s nominating contest, which had 25.91%.

Evanston residents line up for voting at Trinity Lutheran Church in Evanston on March 17.
Evanston residents line up for voting at Trinity Lutheran Church in Evanston on March 17.
Nam Y. Huh/AP file

This year, 2,279,439 of the state’s 8,036,534 registered voters cast ballots in the March primary.

What saved voter turnout from bottoming out during the coronavirus pandemic for this year’s primary were options that allowed voters to avoid the precincts on Election Day, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

“It looks like we did have some offset from people who voted early and voted by mail,” Dietrich said.

Early numbers show vote-by-mail ballots increased from the previous primary election — 10% of total ballots cast this year, compared to 3% in the 2016 primary, according to the board’s unofficial numbers.

Early voting was also up, Dietrich said, with about 636,000 people opting to vote early, compared to 520,000 in 2016, according to unofficial numbers.

The statewide turnout was also boosted by Chicago, where election officials have already released figures showing a city turnout of 37.78% — also crediting early and mail-in voting with boosting the final numbers.

The statewide canvas released Friday included the final results for contests up and down the ballot.

Among the Democratic presidential contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden ran away with the primary, winning 58.94% of the vote, compared to the nearest contender, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who nabbed 36.18%.

In the contentious 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary, challenger Marie Newman won 47.26% of the vote, beating incumbent eight-term Rep. Dan Lipinski, who won 44.72%.