Illinois voters brave pandemic fears to head to polls

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. GarzaA clean vote: Theresieh Waugh, an election judge with Anderson Township, wipes down the surface of a voting booth after a voter had just finished using it on Tuesday at the precinct’s poll in the Clark County Extension Building south of Marshall, Ill.

SOUTHERN INDIANA — Several tenets of American life have been affected by spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in recent weeks, including one held dear as a prominent right — voting.

On Tuesday, voters in Illinois, Arizona and Florida headed to the polls to vote in their respective primaries. While Illinois carried on with its election, fellow Indiana border states Kentucky and Ohio have made announcements affecting their processes.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear pushed the state’s primary from May to June. In Ohio, the move was more dramatic in nature, with Gov. Mike DeWine closing polls at the last minute Monday due to a health emergency after a judge refused to postpone the election.

Illinois’s turnout saw a sharp drop relative to previous primaries. On the Democratic side, just over 1.5 million voters showed up at the polls.

That figure represents a decrease of roughly a quarter compared to primaries in 2008 and 2016, the bookends for the presidency of Barack Obama.

Officials in the Hoosier state have yet to issue any directives that will impact the primary set for May 5. In the meantime, Clark and Floyd counties are dealing with the uncertainty by pointing out alternative ways to vote.

“Personally, I wish more people were asking for absentee ballots, especially elderly people,” said Nancy Riley, Floyd County voter registration clerk. “But some people want to come out to the polls on Election Day and cast their ballots. It’s their right, and I can’t tell them not to.”

Riley said she wasn’t sure if officials at the state level were considering altering the election date. Because of that, she’s doing what she can to keep the voting environment safe.

Absentee ballots, Riley said, are a good way to do that. The problem, however, is that some people aren’t comfortable with the process.

That process entails ballots being sent in the mail and locked in a cabinet until Election Day, during which they are opened and counted. Riley said it’s her office’s top priority that no vote is missed, regardless of how it’s cast.

“They don’t trust the system that if they send it out that we’re going to open it and count it on Election Day,” she said. “They always ask, ‘You’re going to count this, right?’ Yes, everybody’s counts. I think it’s just them not knowing what happens to it once it gets back here and how it gets tallied. If they’ve never done it before, they aren’t really interested in doing it.”

Both Floyd and Clark counties are encouraging absentee voting this year, given the circumstances. In Clark County, voter registration administrator Angela Cornett said around 150 absentee applications had been submitted as of Monday.

“I think it’s a good idea they use that,” she said. “It’s their choice. I know a lot of people don’t like to use that, but it’s here to keep people safe and healthy. We’ve tried to tell everybody when they call in that they have the option to vote absentee.”

Riley started sending out ballots Monday. She said people can choose from a number of options to qualify for absentee voting.

There are 11 options to choose from to garner absentee rights. Those include having a disability or being scheduled to work during the 12-hour voting window on primary day.

But due to social-distancing advisories issued at the federal, state and local levels, Riley noted that many more people than usual will qualify to vote absentee.

“One of the options is that you’re just confined to your residence, which a lot of people can truthfully say,” she said. “They’re asking us to quarantine, so you are confined. People who are 65 and older have an option, and I feel like a lot of those people need to do that. They can find an option to choose to vote absentee.”

Voters can call Floyd County’s voter registration hotline at 812-948-5419 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to request an absentee application. If a call is made outside of normal hours, Riley suggested callers leave a message.

Clark County voters can stay up to date via the voter registration Facebook page or by calling 812-285-6329.

On the flip side of the equation is the need for poll workers, many of whom are often older citizens. Riley said there is some contact involved in the process, with voters handing off their IDs to poll workers. That may be a source of concern for some.

To limit the risk involved in the exchange, Riley said her office is going to try to distribute gloves to poll workers. She’s also in contact with other officials to find out how she can clean touch-screen voting machines between voters.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that,” Riley said. “We need to have at lest four or five people in each place to work the polls and keep people moving smoothly.”

Riley believes that pushing back the primary dates will help alleviate some of the anxiety caused by the uncertainty. She feels that everyone would have a better chance to quarantine, thus making the wider population feel safer.

It’s the limbo that’s bothersome. Another potential development mentioned by Riley was condensing voting stations.

As it stands now, Floyd County has 15 sites. The state, however, has suggested that those numbers be lowered.

“But that would mean we would have more people in each site,” Riley said. “If you have only one or two sites, the masses of people that would be there would be crazy.”

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