CHICAGO (WLS) -- As turnout tanked in Tuesday's Illinois primary, election officials in Chicago said they tried to get in-person voting called off by state officials and were turned down.
Predicting fear among voters and pollworkers, the chief spokesman for Chicago's Board of Election Commissioners Tuesday morning unleashed a critical attack on Illinois governor JB Pritzker and the state's decision to plow ahead with presidential primary voting in the face of a coronavirus pandemic.
Chicago elections spokesman Jim Allen said the city was placed in a "Catch 22" by Gov. Pritzker and that city officials were "not allowed to say anything" concerning their opposition to the election proceeding for fear it would be considered suppression.
"There is nothing magic about March 17 unless you are St Patrick," Allen said Tuesday morning as thousands of voters stayed home from the polls citywide.
Pritzker responded to Allen's claims during a press conference held Tuesday.
"Last week, the Chicago board asked me to do something that is unquestionably not within my legal authority," Pritzker said. "According to their statement earlier today, they wanted me unilaterally to cancel in person voting on March 17, convert Illinois to an all vote-by-mail state and extend vote-by-mail to May 12th. Not surprisingly, they could not even begin to explain the legal basis for their request, nor could they explain how they believed that they and election authorities across the state could effectively convert the election to all vote by mail."
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined to get dragged into the fray, instead touting the city's partnership with election authorities and Gov. Pritzker. "I'm not going to get into what may or may not have been said" Mayor Lightfoot said in a Tuesday afternoon conference call with reporters. "I don't think thats helpful with people who are trying to vote" she said.
As Ohio canceled it's primary also for today, other states have already pushed their future primaries and Illinois came under fire for not cancelling, the question comes up: is low turnout today a blessing in disguise that could tamp down a spreading illness?
Allen Tuesday said that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a "curse" for Chicago election officials who have been forced to put on election over their best judgement.
Allen said that they asked the governor to call off the election on March 11, nearly a week ago, and replace in-person voting with a mail-only option. The city wanted to abandon polling places, where people would have no choice but to interact.
He said that the governor's attorneys turned them down.
City election officials were "looking for advice as late as yesterday" from the state according to Allen as to how to pull off the election.
In the first two hours today there was extremely low turnout citywide....about 10,000 voters in first hour compared to a usual number of 30 to 40,000 per hour during peak periods.
The pace of voting in Chicago is at a turnout rate less than half of where it was in the primary election four years ago. On March 15, 2016 about 300,000 Chicagoans had cast ballots by midday according to election authority spokesman Jim Allen. During the same time period on Tuesday only 126,500 votes had been cast.
Allen suspects with so many people at home with their children, and working from home that voting took a back seat for the usual throngs.
"We did not have a pre-work rush hour.."
Extremely low numbers were because of "a lot of concern" going to any public place, said Allen.
The city had have about 50 precincts where officials had to shift the location for one reason or another the past week.
"We couldn't get into all of those" new sites according to Allen and officials were still making those deliveries this morning.
There are 2069 precincts citywide.
The governor's spokesperson continued firing back on city election officials.
"2000 young people from the Mikva Challenge were turned away from volunteering because the board wouldn't reduce red tape. So instead of accepting help or offering any solutions of their own, the Chicago Board of Elections decided to wait until Election Day to get on a call with press and make politically charged accusations" Jordan Abudayyeh said.
She said that the governor couldn't cancel or delay an election on his own.
"What's concerning is that the board has time to play politics instead of doing their job. Instead of hosting a press call to pass on the blame for their failures, we would urge the Chicago Board of Elections to focus on ensuring our democracy can continue as uninterrupted as possible by troubleshooting the issues at the polls," Abudayyeh said.
Several hours later on Tuesday afternoon Allen said he wanted to "apologize for letting some of the emotions" of the moment spark his sharp comments against the governor's decision to go forward with the election. "I feel regret for reacting the way I did." He did not walk back comments that city election officials had asked for in-person voting to be cancelled.
During Tuesday morning voting the ABC7 I-Team has received numerous complaints from voters in Chicago and the suburbs stating that such sanitizing wasn't being done as the governor prescribed.
"If he wants to deliver emergency management agency supplies, we will do our best to get that out to our polling places" said a testy Allen. The city distributed "what we had," including a container of hand sanitizer and wipes for the screens. "We did the best we could" he said when asked by the I-Team about the governor's edict of a wipedown after each voter.
In Chicago Allen said that most polling place voting is by paper ballot, and not touch-screen-so that wiping down equipment wasn't as much of an issue.
Early voting at city, all on electronic touch screens Allen said, was being more thoroughly sanitized and those sites he suggested were better stocked with cleaning supplies.
"We certainly had no idea when making purchasing moves in November, December and early January that there would be a global pandemic."
Illinois Primary Election: Chicago election officials wanted polls closed due to COVID-19, IL Governor Pritzker said no