After Low Primary Turnout, Officials and Advocates Hope to Ramp Up Voter Interest in Future Elections

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

The balmy weather was not enough to incentivize Chicagoans to head to the polls as the city recorded what was among its lowest primary turnouts — 20% of registered voters — for a rare summer primary in Illinois.

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Depending on who you ask, the unusual timing of the elections, issues with voters’ access to the polls, and election judges resigning right before polls opened all contributed to the low turnout among Chicago and suburban Cook County’s registered voters on June 28. 

According to Max Bever, of the Chicago Board of Elections, one reason for the low turnout was a lack of election awareness among registered voters following a rare election-free year in 2021. But that lull is over.

“We’re going to have three more in a row,” said Bever, “and every single election is extraordinarily important.”

Three elections are scheduled between November 2022 and April 2023. Bever says local officials will have to work hard to ensure that elections remain on voters’ minds, and to combat signs of political fatigue and electoral burnout.

But it was redistricting that seemed to be the primaries’ Achilles’ heel.

Illinois’ 2022 primary elections presented a unique set of challenges as a result of redistricting in the state following the 2020 census.

Configuring Illinois’ redrawn districts forced the primary elections to be pushed back from their usual March dates to the end of June. But according to Jane Ruby, president of the League of Women Voters of Chicago, summertime elections are in direct conflict with people’s vacations.

Stevie Valles, co-executive director of Chicago Votes, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing youth political engagement, said he was frustrated with elections falling during schools’ summer break.

“A lot of the mobilization efforts at voter turnout and education efforts happen inside educational institutions,” said Valles. “So, with school being out for the summer, there was a unique challenge trying to engage young people.”

Access to the polls was also a significant concern.

“From polling place closures to language access barriers to broken equipment and incorrect ballots, voters, particularly in the city of Chicago, faced needless hurdles, when it came to simply wanting to exercise their right to vote.” said Ami Gandhi, senior counsel at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Fifty-six polling stations in Chicago failed to open on time, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. The board cited an unexpected and unprecedented number of election judges resigning before election day, some of whom resigned two hours before polls opened at 6 am. Bever said the board is considering precinct consolidation to prevent similar incidents in the future, especially in light of the state’s congested electoral calendar.

The 2022 Illinois primaries had 1,043 separate polling places covering 2069 precincts in Chicago, and with redistricting adding further confusion to some voters – and even judges, according to Gandhi – consolidating precincts and decreasing the number of polling stations can lead to more targeted efforts toward more accessible voting that would allow ballots to be cast at any station regardless of their address, an initiative already adopted by suburban DuPage County in their “Vote Anywhere” program.

However, Gandhi suggested that DuPage’s voting access solutions may not apply to a city as metropolitan as Chicago.

And in the wake of the election being the first primaries post-Roe v. Wade, Ruby suggested that the electoral ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision will unfold more toward the general elections once voters and candidates define their stances on the issue.

“We need to be organizing at a hyper-local scale,” said Alex Boutros, community organizing manager at Chicago Votes, “We’re really talking about the presidency, and we’re not educated about local offices and the impact that they have over our lives.”

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