The Covid-19 pandemic and Illinois’ Stay at Home order last March created a challenging logistical situation at many of Chicago’s 1,250 polling places—especially at the hundreds of sites that provided less than 1,000 square feet of voting space, often in senior housing apartment lobbies and poorly ventilated church basements.
Within months, the Illinois General Assembly tweaked the election code to expand Chicago’s popular vote by mail (VBM) program, approve the use of drop-boxes, expand Early Voting (EV) hours and to declare Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020, a one-time only state holiday.
While these reforms will likely reduce the number of in-person election day voters to the low hundreds of thousands, they did nothing to free the Chicago Board of Elections (BOE) from its arcane legal mandate to assign 2,069 precincts to polling places (at the time of writing, two weeks before Election Day, there are still more than 70 precincts not yet assigned).
Four top staffers at BOE—General Counsel Adam Lasker, Spokesperson/Strategic Planner Jim Allen, Executive Director Lance Gough, and Asst. Executive Director Charles Holiday—have a combined 100 years of election administration experience in the City of Chicago. Together, with their board’s approval, they have implemented an impressive array of improvements: newer, faster electronic voting machines, back office sorting machines that process 5,000 VBM ballots per hour, email communications to remind registered voters to vote, interactive social media campaigns, on-line ballot tracking, early voting for pre-trail detainees at Cook County Jail and more.
For years, these staffers have asked aldermen, Cook County commissioners and state legislators to consider following in the electoral reform path of seventeen states—Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming—and allow for Vote Centers.
For reasons that can’t be explained, though, the Illinois General Assembly has said no.
Vote Centers in Chicago would serve the same function as EV locations and Election Day polling places combined. This chart compares the BOE’s polling place footprint (a) actual March 2020 election, (b) planned November 2020 election, and (c) notional November 2020 election had Vote Centers been approved.
Operating approximately 200 Vote Centers during the three weeks prior to and including Election Day, instead of 1,200 Election Day polling places and 51 Early Voting sites, would have several advantages for Chicago voters.
For starters, the BOE has operated under a Federal Department of Justice Settlement Agreement since April 2017 because 90 percent of its Election Day polling places are considered non-Americans with Disablilities accessible. Even after contracting with a $25,000/month consultant, this task appears to be impossible. 200 large, modernized and 100 percent accessible Vote Centers would be much more convenient and less costly than operating 1,200 one-day only polling places (no more church basements and 80-year-old park district fieldhouses with 600 square feet of voting space and questionable accessibility, if any).
Because different offices, advisory referenda and local option questions appear on the ballot, every two years the BOE must produce, organize and deliver 500+ different paper ballot styles to each Election Day polling place. By contrast, like Early Voting sites, all voting machines in Vote Centers would be electronic with print-on-demand ballots. These machines are faster, more popular with voters including senior citizens, and the BOE procured more than enough of them in 2019 to retire all of the legacy voting machines.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the frequent polling place location changes that occur in between elections. Frequently, voters wait in line on Election Day only to be told they are at the wrong polling place. With Vote Centers, there are no “wrong” places to vote. Locations would be distributed equitably throughout neighborhoods, essentially quadrupling the number of EV sites.
By some estimates, converting to Vote Centers could reduce the number of voting locations by 84 percent but nearly double the number of hours to cast a ballot in person. It seems reasonable to assume that doubling the number of available voting hours would increase turnout and improve the voting experience for Chicagoans.
But readers and the members of the Illinois General Assembly shouldn’t take my word for it. Ask the guy who has been advocating for Vote Centers for several years, the guy with 42 years of experience running Chicago elections who retires in six weeks, Lance Gough.
Maybe during the next legislative session in Springfield we can amend the 610-page election code to do the thing he and his team have been requesting for years, make Vote Centers easier to access and more equitable for voters in all neighborhoods.
Jimm Dispensa is a spatial data analyst and former data editor/co-founder of The Daily Line