Illinois Used Nearly 50 Facilities for Low-Income Seniors in Chicago as Polling Locations on Tuesday

Public health experts warned that holding in-person elections would worsen the coronavirus pandemic, but Illinois, Florida, and Arizona plowed ahead.

Nikolette Baxter, 30, and son Jeremy, 2, both of the West Side of Chicago, wear masks when she came to vote at Midwest Terrace senior apartments which handled voting for the 50th precinct in the 27th ward. (Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
A voter and her son, both of the West Side of Chicago, wear masks at Midwest Terrace senior apartments, which handled voting for the 50th Precinct in the 27th Ward. Photo: Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

In order to push forward with in-person elections on Tuesday, local election officials across Illinois relocated hundreds of polling locations due to concerns about exposing particularly vulnerable populations to the novel coronavirus. Guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ahead of the election were particularly stark. 

“If you are an older person, stay home and away from other people,” the latest guidelines read. “If you are a person with a serious underlying health condition that can put you at increased risk (for example, a condition that impairs your lung or heart function or weakens your immune system), stay home and away from other people.”

Gatherings of more than 10 people were discouraged for everyone. Yet, despite precautions the state claimed it would take, counties and cities were left scrambling to move polling locations last minute. In Chicago, nearly 200 sites were relocated, causing confusion for voters. And nearly 50 housing facilities for low-income seniors were used as polling locations, according to the website of Chicago’s Board of Election Commissioners. 

Jane Addams Senior Caucus, which advocates for social, economic, and racial justice for seniors, condemned the decision. Among the senior facilities still open as polling sites were 25 senior public housing buildings managed by the Chicago Housing Authority. 

“The decision to hold the elections at all today is a public health risk for everyone,” Kelly Viselman, the group’s organizing director, said on Tuesday. “The specific decision to allow polling places to be open at CHA senior buildings puts low-income seniors, an already high-risk population, at even greater risk. That’s extremely concerning.” 

The group is also calling for new emergency protocols in the city’s senior buildings, including food and medication delivery, an updated cleaning regimen, and nurses or trained healthcare workers on site. 

Billionaire Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden on the eve of the primary. Even as nearby Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine used emergency authority to postpone the voting, Pritzker insisted it go forward. With 155 delegates, Illinois is the sixth largest prize of the primary. The day’s voting was marred by confusion and anxiety, as poll workers complained of critical shortages of staffing and cleaning supplies and election officials reported anemic turnout. 

Donald Bell resigned as an election judge on Monday. “We shouldn’t have to be faced with this emotional crisis of doing our duty or protecting our own health,” he said.

Biden was declared the winner with more than 909,000 votes to Sanders’s 555,000. It’s not clear yet how many of those were early votes and how many were cast in person. In the night’s biggest upset, insurgent Marie Newman unseated longtime Rep. Dan Lipinski, whose family had held the congressional seat for nearly 30 years.

Difficulties for voters and poll workers were especially acute in Chicago, where the first Covid-19 death was announced Tuesday. A grassroots group representing seniors in the Chicago area warned that the election had jeopardized the health of older people, who appear more likely to become seriously ill from the virus.

To date, Illinois has confirmed 160 coronavirus cases, most of them concentrated in the Chicago area, and one death from the disease. On Monday, Pritzker declined to postpone the election, saying at a news conference, “We do believe it’s safe. We’ve certainly consulted experts, and we think that the election will go on just fine.” Pritzker endorsed Biden’s presidential bid the same day. 

The spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners said Tuesday morning that the city’s election officials had privately urged the governor to call off in-person voting. “This was a snowball we could all see coming down the hill,” said spokesperson Jim Allen. A spokesperson for Pritzker shot back that this was “a lie.”  

The four states that were set to vote yesterday — Arizona, Illinois, Florida, and Ohio — took varying levels of precaution to protect vulnerable voters from exposure to Covid-19. Before DeWine took the extraordinary step of barring Ohio’s elections as a public health emergency, the state ordered that all polling locations at nursing homes and senior residential facilities be relocated.

Last week, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners opted to close all of the city’s designated polling locations inside nursing homes. A number of privately managed senior housing facilities later withdrew as voting sites, but CHA-managed senior buildings did not. 

A spokesperson for the Chicago Housing Authority said, “The locations of polling places were determined by the Chicago Board of Elections and CHA was assured by election board officials that every precaution regarding cleaning would be in place. CHA has not received any complaints about polling places at our properties.”

Meanwhile, 50 polling locations canceled “last minute,” according to election authorities, leading to a scramble on Tuesday morning. Some poll workers reported having to turn away voters who arrived because voting materials were never delivered. 

At other locations, observers took to Twitter to express their dismay at two-hour waits for seniors and crowds in excess of 150 people, despite the governor’s recently issued ban on large gatherings. 

The problems were compounded by a shortage in election judges, a role often filled by retirees and older people. As scores of election judges dropped out leading up to the primary, city elections officials issued a plea on Monday for younger residents to sign up to help, boosting the pay offered and waiving certain training requirements.  

Tom Durkin, an 81-year-old resident of a senior public housing building that served as a polling place today, said he voted midday with relatively little difficulty. Election judges were wearing masks, and the community room where voting took place was blocked off from the residential area. 

But Durkin expressed concern over the impact the pandemic would have on the primary season. “I think the whole election is being altered by what’s going on,” he said. “People have asked me over the last few days, have you ever seen anything like this before? But even at my age, no one has seen anything like this before.” 

Donald Bell, a resident of Town Hall Senior Apartments, said that he called the Board of Elections to resign as an election judge on Monday out of health concerns.I’ve been an election judge for over 30 years,” he said. “It was a heavy decision. The responsibility for actually conducting the election skews heavily to those people that are at the highest risk. We shouldn’t have to be faced with this emotional crisis of doing our duty or protecting our own health.” 

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