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Chicago Prepares to Shrink Precincts Ahead of Nov. Election

The city will reduce its number of voting precincts by nearly 40 percent, which is expected to save as much as $2 million. However, the reduction also means that many voters’ polling places will change for the November election.

(TNS) — Following a primary where problems popped up at polling places citywide, Chicago election officials are preparing to shrink the number of voting precincts by nearly 40 percent and are squeezing the cuts in just months before the contentious midterm election in November.

How the new precinct boundaries will affect where voters go on Election Day has not yet been determined. But the cuts will likely be noticeable as they are nearly twice the size of the city’s precinct consolidation after the 2010 census.

Election officials have long complained that Chicago has too many precincts, and the new electoral map is designed to address rising costs of election operations as well as the changing behavior of voters who are increasingly voting early at central polling places or mailing in their ballots.

Officials with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners said the recalibration is expected to save as much as $2 million because the board will have fewer supply costs and won’t need to hire as many election judges to work the polls on Election Day. A spokesman for the board also said the cuts will help election officials focus on ensuring that more precinct polling locations are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, work the city has been slow to address.

But the drastic reset also comes with some concerns because, while it remains unclear how many of the city’s current 1,043 polling places will close, some voters are likely to find their polling locations changed for both the November general election and the following February when the mayoral and other city elections are held.

Ami Gandhi, a senior counsel for voting rights with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said she is worried about voter accessibility and said voters should have been more involved in the consolidation process.

Gandhi noted that in the June primary some voters were turned away from voting on Election Day after the city announced weeks earlier that 73 precincts would be without polling places and 56 polling places opened late primarily due to election judge shortages.

“We are very critical and concerned about any effort to reduce in-person polling place access, which is one of the effects of the closures that we saw in June, the closures and reduced number … that’s expected for the November elections and further, more drastic closures that could occur in the future, not just in Chicago, but in Illinois more broadly,” Gandhi said.

One election worker, who said she has staffed a polling place in Humboldt Park every Election Day since 2014, said that while the Chicago Board of Elections generally does a good job getting the word out about changes, she thinks polling places could use a dedicated person this upcoming election to help redirect people who show up at the wrong site.

“If they don’t stay on top of this before they do it to let people know that (their polling place) might be changing, it will be a mess,” said Eileen Black, who hadn’t heard of the changes to the map.

But Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Max Bever said the board is going to work to limit the confusion, as voters can expect to receive mailers with their new precinct and polling places assignments.

“So this does mean that voters will not only have a new precinct, they will likely have a new polling place location ahead of November,” Bever said.

While Bever said the board is hoping to keep as many existing polling places open as possible, the moves follow a steady decrease in the number of polling places across the city that have been open on Election Day. In the 2018 primary election, for instance, there were 1,449 polling places citywide. That number decreased by about 400 by this June’s primary.

Since 2012, there have been 2,069 precincts. Under the cuts that are about to occur, the number of precincts citywide will drop to 1,290, officials say.

With the new map finalized, the board has just over two months to find new polling place locations or confirm existing ones. The board expects the process to be completed by the end of September, brushing up against the start of early voting on Sept. 29.

The precinct reductions were included in legislation that passed last year through the Illinois General Assembly and was signed into law in November by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The precinct provisions raised the limit of voters per precinct from 800 to 1,800 in Cook County and to 1,200 for every other county in the state. Many of the other counties in Illinois already have implemented the changes.

Chicago is a bit late to the game because city election officials had to wait for city ward boundaries to be drawn, a process that took months longer than expected due to a controversial remapping process.

The Chicago Board of Elections proposed ward precinct maps and then got feedback from aldermen. Among the potential problems some council members spotted were proposed precincts that were split by major streets, waterways or thoroughfares, precinct lines that didn’t align with neighborhood boundaries or proposed polling places that were too far from senior housing.

As is often the case in Chicago, many aldermen pushed back against the proposal to cut the service their constituents would receive, and the board agreed in several cases to restore precincts it had originally planned to eliminate.

Citywide, the reduction will mean an average of 1,165 voters will be located within each precinct, compared with the 500 to 800 voters per precinct Chicago has historically had.

Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th, said he met with board officials three times to revise the new precinct map. According to documents obtained by the Tribune through a public records request, the board initially proposed 28precincts for the Southwest Side ward, a 50 percent reduction from the 57 the ward has had for a decade. Both sides finally settled on the ward having 36 precincts.

O’Shea said the compromise was reached because, while he understood the logistical need for fewer precincts, he was concerned a significant decrease would limit voter access.

“This isn’t an easy needle to thread,” he said. “If they have to drive 2 miles to vote, that’s voter suppression. If they have to wait two hours in line, that’s voter suppression.”

With the new citywide map, the three wards that will see the greatest reduction in precincts will be the 34th Ward, which is currently on the Far South Side but is being moved under the new ward map to the downtown, West Loop and South Loop neighborhoods; the 14th Ward on the Southwest Side; and the 24th Ward on the West Side.

Each of those wards has idiosyncrasies tied to its council representative.

In the 34th, Ald. Carrie Austin has been under federal indictment for bribery charges and has said she’s not running for reelection. In the 14th, Ald. Ed Burke, the longest-serving alderman in Chicago history, is scheduled to go on trial for federal corruption next year and hasn’t announced whether he’s running for reelection. And in the 24th Ward, Ald. Monique Scott, was just named by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to replace her brother Michael Scott, who stepped down to take a job in the private sector.

The 9th Ward, which encompasses mostly the Pullman neighborhood on the Far South Side, used to be in the top five in terms of the number of precincts. Although its alderman, Anthony Beale, was one of seven aldermen who voted against the new ward map, Beale said he thinks the move to reduce precincts is smart and cost-effective because more voters are casting ballots early. Following several extensive conversations with board officials, Beale said he is “confident” the number of precincts going forward is right.

“Whatever problems we have, we want to air them out in a non-aldermanic election,” Beale said.

Still, residents remain concerned.

Diana Thomas, 59, has lived on the same block in the 34th Ward for decades and prefers to vote in person. But when she showed up this past June shortly before the polls closed, she found herself in the wrong place. Her polling place had changed in 2020, and she said the security guard at the Wentworth Commons apartment building, where she voted for years prior, couldn’t help her. Without time or a way to find the right polling place, Thomas wasn’t able to cast a ballot in the primary.

With the 34th Ward gearing up for a big change, Thomas said she is concerned about her neighbors finding their way.

“I think a lot of people are going to get caught up in the change and they’re not gonna vote. I don’t think this being handled right,” she said. “There are a lot of elderly people in 34th Ward. … What about them?”

While the board is trying to calm fears by saying it will try to close as few precinct polling places as possible this November, spokesman Bever said the board is also hopeful the precinct cuts will help with another issue: increasing the percentage of polling places that are ADA accessible.

In 2017, the board entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to make all polling places accessible to disabled voters by the 2018 general election. The agreement was amended in 2019 to move the target date to the upcoming 2022 general election, but the board does not anticipate it will meet the goal and expects that the agreement will need to be amended again.

A Tribune analysis shows that fewer than 20 percent of the polling places in June’s primary were ADA compliant.

Over the next few election cycles, Bever said, the board will focus on moving polling places to ADA-compliant locations.

“The delays caused by COVID-19 in this project have been a major roadblock over the past few years,” Bever wrote in a statement to the Tribune. “Additionally, there have been continued budgeting complications for the agencies that own and operate non-compliant public buildings.”

All of Chicago’s precincts have lowered booths to accommodate voters in wheelchairs, which also became a statewide law last November, Chicago Board of Elections general counsel Adam Lasker said during a recent board meeting.

All of the 51 early voting centers, which will also be open on Election Day, are ADA compliant.

Outside of Chicago, some county government officials have pivoted to follow the new law.

In suburban Cook County, the county clerk’s office implemented its precinct consolidation in December and reduced the total number of precincts by 10 percent, said clerk spokeswoman Sally Daly. Daly said the consolidation occurred within the existing polling places and that no polling places changed as a result.

The Illinois Association of County Clerks and Recorders lobbied for the legislation, according to Julie Bliss, an official with the group and the clerk and recorder in Boone County.

And even though the legislation was aimed at decreasing the number of precincts, some counties actually saw the precinct number increase because populations in those counties have spiked over the past decade. Indeed, Lake, Kane and McHenry counties all saw an increase in precincts.

While some counties have moved quickly to implement a new map, others, such as Sangamon County, where Springfield is located, have decided to take more time.

“Instead of a very rushed timeline with the preparations needed for the late June primary, we decided to hold the reapportionment process for 2023,” said Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray. “We try to be as consistent as possible in election administration so as to not confuse voters and not disrupt the consistency of elections.”

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