Weinberg freshman Maryarita Kobotis was planning to be one of 16 volunteers at an Illinois primary polling location on March 17. Instead, when she showed up, there were only three others. That was the start of the problems associated with hosting an election during a global pandemic.
“I know myself and the other judges were worried about getting infected or transmitting COVID-19,” Kobotis said. “At that point, it was picking up and I do not think that it was a good idea to basically say, ‘If you want to vote, you have to go outside and risk exposure to COVID.’”
At the precinct where she volunteered, all of the administrative judges and equipment managers quit, which meant that none of the volunteers knew how to troubleshoot the equipment. They also didn’t have access to the voter supply containers, which contain the e-poll books that allow volunteers to check voters in, among other necessary supplies. That meant when they were supposed to open the polls at 6 a.m., they couldn’t. They wouldn’t be able to for another two hours.
“It was very disheartening because we had to turn some people away,” Kobotis said. “It felt like we were part of the problem.”
Kobotis served as an election judge at McCracken Middle School in Skokie, Ill., a split election site hosting four separate precincts. She was the only volunteer from her precinct to show up. The rest quit due to concerns about the virus.
“I knew that if I quit, there was nobody left from my precinct, and I felt like I kind of had to do it,” Kobotis said.
When Illinois hosted its primary, the first regional shelter-in-place order had just gone into effect in the San Francisco area. Three days later, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a state-wide stay-at-home order in Illinois. Less than a month later when Wisconsin hosted its election, the majority of the country was in some version of a shelter-in-place order, causing concerns about the safety of voting.
As the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. grew, states moved to postpone their primaries, made them entirely vote by mail, or, in the case of New York, cancelled them altogether (that decision has since been overturned). Wisconsin took a different approach, hosting the election anyway.
A day before Wisconsin’s election, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order attempting to postpone in-person voting until June 9, but the order was struck down by the conservative majority in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In a separate case, a federal judge ruled that all absentee ballots would be counted if they arrived before April 13. However, the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, meaning ballots had to arrive by April 6. Many voters who applied for absentee ballots failed to receive them, forcing them to choose between risking their health to go to the polls or not voting.
Among the races on the ballot in Wisconsin was the highly contended Supreme Court race between Judge Jill Karofsky and incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly. Karofsky, the liberal candidate, ousted Kelly, marking the second time in over 50 years that a Wisconsin Supreme Court challenger beat an incumbent.
“This totally backfired on the Republicans,” said Rosie Rees, co-leader of the progressive organization Indivisible Evanston. “It diminished the number of people who could vote, but the people who did vote really did want to vote.”
Indivisible Evanston started canvassing in Wisconsin in August 2019. In the months that followed, they sent over 200 volunteers to Wisconsin to listen to voter concerns and assist the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, spending their time registering people to vote and encouraging them to go to the polls rather than advocating for a specific candidate.
They’d planned to spend the last few weekends before Wisconsin’s election continuing their in-person efforts, but those efforts were quickly shifted after Illinois issued its stay-at-home order. Door-to-door canvassing turned into text and phone banking, and Indivisible Evanston continued to send postcards to voters, mailing 50,000 postcards in the weeks before the election.
“This election really should not have happened,” Indivisible Evanston Co-Leader Kathleen Long said. “We’re very concerned that what we saw in Wisconsin is going to be replicated in November.”
Voting during a pandemic looks different — voters stand six feet apart, voting booths are wiped down after every voter; and voters are forced to wait in long lines. In Wisconsin, 52 people who either worked the polls or voted tested positive for COVID-19, and in Illinois, a poll worker died after contracting the virus.
For now, according to Research Professor of Law Michael Kang, the lessons learned in Illinois and Wisconsin can be used to frame how the general election is held if social distancing measures persist until the fall.
“We are not in a situation where this should be a surprise anymore,” Kang said. “We’ve got to figure out what the procedures ought to be and how they can be adjusted now that we understand the situation.”
Thumbnail image licensed with permission from Wikimedia Commons. [[File:Toledo, WA - permanent outdoor ballot box.jpg|thumb|Toledo, WA - permanent outdoor ballot box]]