Joe Biden’s sweep of primaries last night has given him a decisive and likely insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination. And yet, as voters and election officials in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona grappled with confusion, closures, resignations, and low turnout yesterday, Biden’s victories were tarnished by the decision to hold in-person voting in the middle of a global pandemic .
Democratic in-person voter turnout was significantly down from 2016, unsurprising given the circumstances. Yesterday’s vote was mired in controversy before it even began, with Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine declaring a health emergency and postponing the state’s primary to not “force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk,” while Arizona, Florida, and Illinois pressed on with theirs.
As the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths mounted in the United States and across the world, and as cities went into virtual lockdown, voters in these three states were hit with contradictory instructions: they were cheerfully urged to turn out and vote by Democratic officials and the Biden campaign, on the one hand, and on the other, darkly warned to stay home and avoid even moderately sized gatherings of people by federal and state governments, health experts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This mixed messaging was perhaps no better embodied than by Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker, billionaire and longtime Democratic financier. In the days leading up to the vote, Pritzker ordered all restaurants, bars, and schools closed, banned gatherings of more than fifty people, and publicly pleaded with Illinois residents to “act in the best interest of everyone in this state” and “stay home” in the face of the ballooning crisis.
“Every day that we follow social distancing protocols, we save lives,” he said.
Pritzker then promptly violated his own public health warnings and insisted the election go forward as scheduled, saying it was “the right thing to do,” that he felt “good about the decision,” and that it would be “safe” and would “go on just fine.” He even rejected a March 11 request from the Chicago Board of Elections to cancel in-person voting for fear of health concerns, with Pritzker’s office calling the board’s spokesperson a liar and charging it with “scoring cheap political points.” He then endorsed Biden a day before voting. The next day, the state reported its first death from the virus.
The decision to go ahead with the elections was met with a torrent of criticism. A letter signed by dozens of health professionals warned that “the amount of time standing in line with hundreds or even thousands of other voters substantially increases the likelihood that someone will get sick,” pointing out that, with the primaries lasting until June, “the party has full flexibility to schedule state-level races at any point before then.” Biologist Dr Lucky Tran tweeted she was “deeply disappointed that the DNC is willfully choosing not to listen to scientists during one of the most critical moments in recent history.” The Democratic Party, for its part, appeared committed to only exacerbating the pandemic, fighting the Ohio governor’s decision to postpone voting and threatening states with penalties if they postponed their primaries past June 9.
The spread of the virus only added to the election chaos in the days before Tuesday. All three states saw hundreds of poll workers abandon their posts, and many polling stations close or relocate, over fears of the virus. Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county and home to Phoenix, its biggest city, culled eighty polling locations. This was on top of the more than 20 percent that have closed since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, largely in Maricopa County and in areas with large minority populations. On election day, many polling stations in Florida failed to open thanks to a shortage of staff.
In Chicago, an unprecedented 850 election judges — many of them elderly — had backed out of working on Tuesday, while around 200 polling places in Chicago and suburban Cook County closed down, as well as fifty more in the city at the last minute, resulting in a scramble to find replacement stations and workers. Contradicting all advice from scientists and health professionals, Illinois Democratic Party executive director Mary Morrissey asserted that “going to the polling place is no different” from “going out to small gatherings or going to the grocery store,” and called for anyone “not in that vulnerable age group” to volunteer. (In fact, younger people are still at risk from the virus, and there are growing concerns and evidence that young people not showing symptoms are helping drive its spread.)
All of this — coupled with health fears in a moment when the Trump administration’s botched handling of the crisis threatens to turn the United States into another, bigger Italy — contributed to voters’ heavy use of early voting and voting by mail. Chicago broke a record for mail-in ballot applications set during World War II, while the majority of Arizona Democrats voted early this way, pushing turnout in the state above its 2016 levels, a similar phenomenon as in Florida. Illinois was the exception to the rule, seeing a likely drop in overall turnout, with Chicago in particular seeing what the Board of Elections’ Jim Allen called “extremely low” turnout.
Because mail-in ballots take longer to count, it remains to be seen how their inclusion will affect Biden’s victory margins. One thing is clear, however: for many voters, yesterday was a chaotic ordeal that may have not only suppressed voter turnout, but ultimately accelerated the current health crisis.
Bedlam at the Ballot Box
Almost as soon as voting began, social media lit up with accounts of voting chaos in the primaries, nowhere more so than in Illinois.
One poll worker live-blogged her experience at a Chicago polling station, where she and her elderly colleagues waited fourteen hours since before 5 a.m. for a blue box of voting supplies that never came. After ten hours, she said, they had turned away at least a hundred eligible voters, including many who were unable to vote at a different time. They were instead forced to send voters to an alternate location, one with an hours-long wait.
Videos and photographs captured long, shoulder-to-shoulder lines and voters crammed into small spaces as they voted. One voter told Sanders campaign staffer Abshir Omar that, in one of these instances, voters had waited two or three hours to vote; some simply left without voting. One couple, one of whom suffered from lung disease, braved the polling booths and traveled to three polling places before they could finally vote.
This was a common story among Chicagoans. Megan, a thirty-nine-year-old nonprofit worker who lives on the city’s south side, woke up to check online if her polling place was still open, only to be repeatedly met with an error message. Deciding to simply go to the polling site, she found it abandoned, with no signs explaining what voters should do. At a different polling site, a man who identified himself as the precinct captain told her that “they won’t let us put signs up.” Ultimately, she voted as an early voter at a police station. Altogether, it took her an hour to finally cast her vote.
Lawson, 31, had a similar experience. Getting up early to vote, he found his polling place, St Sylvester School, shut down with no signs or personnel present, only encountering a sign instructing him where else to go when he returned during his lunch break. Arriving at the new polling location, he was informed that, nearly six hours into the election, they were still waiting for voting supplies to come, and directed to an early voting location forty minutes’ walk away.
“I ended up late to a work meeting, though my boss was understanding,” he says. “But if someone was operating on a thirty-minute break, it might’ve been different.”
Sometimes, initiative and personal sacrifice saved the day. When his building pulled out of serving as a polling location, Lucien, 25, noticing that no signs had been posted instructing voters where else to go, put his own makeshift signs in and around the location. It then took him forty-five minutes to cast his vote at a police station, before signing up to help out at another polling place that was short three polling judges.
“I think the responsible decision would have been, at least in Illinois, to delay the election, or do all mail-in,” he says. “I don’t know how many voters were able to vote.”
But even mail-in ballots could hit a snag. University of Illinois at Chicago graduate student Lindsey, forty, hadn’t been at work since March 9 due to a seasonal cold, so she filed for a vote-by-mail option that very day. But from March 12 onward, her ballot was stuck in a facility in Carol Stream, twenty-seven miles west of the city. With her in-person polling location closed, the nearest one was a five-mile trip on public transit, not an option given the pandemic and her own illness. Told she could still send her ballot as long as it was post-marked by election day, she found the ballot miraculously sitting in her mailbox at 4:30 p.m. — but with only fifteen minutes to travel two miles to a post office that would expose her to more people, she was unable to send it.
“I feel frustrated,” she says. “I really do think that I tried to think ahead.” Lindsey had planned to vote for Sanders, believing that “if we’re seeing anything from the current situation we’re in, we desperately need health care for everyone widely available.”
The sanitary conditions of polling places were a wild card. While a number of voters described safe, responsible management of the conditions in polling places, with social distancing and regular disinfecting of voting machines and other tools, some were far from ideal.
Caitlin, a thirty-two-year-old organizer for the Cook County College Teachers Union, was shocked at what she saw working as a poll watcher in Chicago’s Thirtieth Ward, calling it a “really unsanitary scene.” With nearly 300 people voting at the location over the course of the day, as many as twenty to twenty-five voters were packed into a small room at one point as they waited to cast their ballots, with no hand sanitizer, no cleaning equipment, and pens, clipboards, and screens being shared between people without being cleaned. The poll workers, a number of whom were elderly, weren’t given any equipment; one, an elderly man, brought his own mask, while another wore the same pair of gloves for the entire experience.
“I felt very uncomfortable with the whole thing, considering our governor said we should stay home,” she says. “They shut down sporting events, but for some reason, they thought it was okay for this election to go forward.”
The scene was a stark contrast from the polling place she herself had voted in earlier that morning, she says, which had hand sanitizer and only allowed five or six voters inside at any one time.
Video producer Ryan, 31, was similarly shocked when he turned up at a polling place just before 9 a.m. in a western suburb of Chicago, only to find three poll workers with no gloves, no masks, and no hand sanitizer huddled around an electronic ballot box. It had just arrived, they told him, and it would take them a while to get it up and running.
“I didn’t want to stay around too long because of social distancing,” he says. He wasn’t told where else to go and vote.
Such issues weren’t limited to Illinois. In Phoenix, it took Cassandra, 30, nearly three hours to finally cast her vote, having had to travel to three different polling locations, the last of which was around seven miles away. Once there, she waited for half an hour in a line that made it difficult to practice social distancing, and she had to check in on computers that weren’t being wiped down between uses while elderly poll workers manned the location.
“Luckily, my work is allowing telework,” she says. “Not everyone is able to, obviously.”
Cole, a forty-six-year-old manufacturing technician from Gilbert, Arizona, was turned away at his usual polling place because the machines for verifying voter IDs had broken down. The next closest location was four or five miles away, but when he went to cast his ballot, the machine had run out of battery. He was instead forced to place it in a slot labeled “misread,” which the poll worker assured him would get counted.
“I was really nervous about putting it in, but I didn’t have any choice,” he says.
One silver lining for Cole: while previous years involved one- to two-hour-long waits to vote, this time, there was hardly anyone present. Nonetheless, the whole experience cost him an hour and twenty minutes.
The Party of Voter Suppression
It will likely take weeks at least to know the full ramifications of the decision to continue with Tuesday’s elections. Despite endangering public health, however, the state governments that ignored health experts’ and their own warnings may, in the end, get away with it: the United States’ sluggish rate of testing and the ever-exploding nature of the crisis could mask whatever contribution yesterday’s voting made to the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, we may never know just how many people yesterday’s confusion, chaos, and long lines deterred from casting their votes at all.
As we look back on the bedlam of yesterday, it pays to do a thought experiment. What would we think if the Republican Party ignored the advice of health experts and government officials to hold elections during a deadly pandemic, plausibly leading to the deaths of thousands of Americans? If they forced voters to choose between exercising their democratic rights, and the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. If they misinformed voters about their health risks, encouraged them to violate the pleas of scientists and health officials, and celebrated afterward. What, indeed?