Chicago’s reputation for political shenanigans notwithstanding, voting hereabouts went relatively smoothly on Nov. 6… though officials in charge of the balloting have some ideas on how to make it better.
The Chicago Board of Elections reported few glitches, though the agency that runs voting within city limits did some last-minute scrambling because the decennial remap caused some dislocation and confusion among election judges and voters.
The Cook County Clerk’s office, which runs the show in the county’s suburban townships, reported even fewer problems, though perennial reformer David Orr invariably has a suggestion or two.
James P. Allen, the Chicago Board’s communications director, said the largest hurdle cleared during Election 2012 involved the remap of local precinct, state legislative and congressional boundaries. Many precincts and polling places were shifted from one city ward to another, confusing some election judges that morning and befuddling some voters throughout the day. Re-districting is mandatory every 10 years so as to apportion each district’s population to reflect new U.S. Census data.
“This was a major adjustment for many of our voters, and our biggest concern was getting out voter mailings and other information to make sure the voters were aware of their polling place for Election Day in the event it changed,” Allen said.
Despite re-districting, Allen said, the election board’s early outreach to voters via mailings and other communication proved effective, especially for those who chose to vote early at pre-designated sites—typically park field houses or libraries— throughout the city.
“Re-districting required us to relocate 11 Early Voting sites, and we had thousands of voters going each day to those new sites and virtually no voters going to the old sites that were no longer in use,” Allen said.
Election Day morning saw a few kinks, he conceded, because of changes in polling places but voter turnout was still slightly higher than it was for the last presidential race.
“We saw the most issues on the morning of Election Day,” Allen said, “and that was when voters and judges reported that some were going to the wrong polling place and/or having trouble finding their polling place; however, turnout was slightly higher than it was in 2008.”
The Board’s unofficial post-election tally for turnout among registered city voters was 74 percent, though that may increase because a few more absentee and provisional ballots needed to be counted.
Allen also noted that despite reports of voters going to the wrong polling places, fewer provisional ballots were cast than in 2004 or 2008, neither of which were re-districting years. Provisional ballots are accepted when there is some doubt whether a voter is validly registered in a precinct. They are counted, or not counted, after a subsequent determination of eligibility.
“That was an important improvement to see in a year when hundreds of thousands of voters were in different wards than they were four years ago,” Allen said.
Early, not often
An old saw has it that Chicagoans vote “early and often”—a reference to past allegations of vote fraud involving “ghost voting” by the deceased or voters casting ballots in multiple precincts.
Fraud may be a thing of the past, but folks are indeed voting earlier.
“A new pattern has solidified with recent presidential elections,” Allen said, “where most of the Election Day voting is occurring in the very early morning hours with much less tendency for the old ‘evening rush’ at the end of the day.”
Allen added that Early Voting was “extremely strong,” although this year the period was 13 days compared to 18 days in 2008. This year 243,000 early ballots were cast, nearly equal to the much longer period in 2008, when some 260,000 were counted.
Allen ticked off a list of measures the Chicago Board may take in the future based on the experiences of Election 2012:
• Explore using consolidated ‘super sites’ for the last days of Early Voting; and for Grace Period same-day registration and voting, to handle the increasingly large crowds that tend to wait until
the last days of those pre-Election Day opportunities.
• Increase Internet bandwidth to better accommodate the fact that more people have a variety of devices (text-messaging, smart phones, tablet devices, PCs) and tend to use them to obtain voting
information in rush periods such as the opening of Election Day.
President Obama easily carried his home city, garnering 84 percent of the vote compared to Mitt Romney’s 15 percent.
Smooth going in suburbs
As for suburban voting, the Cook County Clerk’s Office reported that all of its 1,600-plus precincts opened on time. What’s more, the Clerk’s office received results from 95 percent of those precincts by 10 p.m. Some factoids:
• South suburban Thornton Township cast the most ballots for President Barack Obama (63,214), and had the highest percentage of votes for Obama (87.7 percent).
• Wheeling Township cast the most ballots for Mitt Romney (28,888), but Barrington Township had the highest percentage of ballots cast for Romney (62.3 percent).
• President Obama won 25 of 30 suburban Cook townships.
• Based on unofficial results, suburban Cook turnout was about 69 percent.
As in the city, those numbers will change slightly as provisional and mail-in ballots are processed prior to official certification.
Orr urges reforms
Cook County Clerk David Orr, as has been his habit during 17 years in the office, used the occasion to make some points about how the election process could be improved.
Shortly after the election Orr wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times seconding an editorial that ran Nov. 9 on the need to reform judicial elections.
“For decades, I’ve called for a switch from electing judges to merit retention,” Orr wrote. “The problem is obvious when 20 years have passed without a single judge losing retention.” Indeed, three or four judges were targeted for non-retention this year by various civic groups, bar associations and newspaper editorial pages. All of them, however, managed to collect the 60 percent needed for retention.
It will take bold action on the part of state legislators to reform judicial elections, Orr argued. Many states have gone to “merit selection” wherein highly-respected panels of legal experts choose from among applicants to the judiciary. Here they are elected, and in Cook County the winners invariably are those slated by the local Democratic organization.
Popular voting to elect and retain judges, wrote Orr, is a major reason why the Cook County ballot is one of the lengthiest in the country, often causing exasperated voters to skip those section of the ballot, or miss voting on questions buried at the bottom of the ballot.
“Long ballots lead to long lines for voting and discourage participation,” Orr wrote. “Plus, some suburban voters on Tuesday thought (local) referenda were missing from their ballots because they skipped judicial races—an all too common occurrence—and unfortunately overlooked voting on a local issue.”