A voter signs in before casting her ballot in the midterm election in Chicago on November 6, 2018. Credit: John Gress Media Inc, Shutterstock

This story was originally published by City Bureau on September 2, 2020.

Last spring, amid the scramble to conduct the March primary election at a time of rising COVID-19 cases and uncertainty, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners was forced to relocate 180 voting precincts, get an emergency court order to keep early voting sites open, and recruit election judges on election day as walk-ons.

Amid this chaos, voters had to decide whether to risk their health in crowded spaces or lose their votes. At least four people who visited polling places tested positive for the coronavirus, and one poll worker who worked at an Auburn Gresham polling site died.

“We learned at the primaries, many poll workers didn’t show up to the polls on election day, which created chaos,” said Bassem Kawar, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights political director. “Polling sites didn’t open on time, some sites just never opened.”

The citywide primary turnout was 38 percent, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, a bit higher than the final turnout during the 2018 March primary at 32 percent. To prepare for an expected high turnout in November, election officials are now taking steps to secure safe voting locations with more space, promote mail-in voting, and push for the early recruitment of younger election judges to avoid another shortage.

Because people who are 60 and older are at higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus, and have historically been a common age group who serve as election judges, election officials are pushing to recruit younger judges ahead of November. A bill passed in June to expand mail-in voting also made it so that 16- and 17-year-old U.S. citizens are able to serve as election judges and designated Nov. 3 election day as a holiday for schools. Previously, students would have to request permission from a principal or counselor to serve as an election judge.

At the same time, the city and county will expand the number of languages available for their voting machines. In March, touchscreens offered English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Tagalog, and Korean. Under a new county ordinance, the November machines will also include Polish, Gujarati, Urdu, Arabic, Ukrainian, and Russian. Multilingual election judges are also in demand.

In the most diverse precinct in the city, paper ballots are typically offered in Spanish, Hindi, and Chinese. That’s in the 25th Ward, which covers parts of Pilsen, Greek Town, Chinatown, University Village, and Little Italy. The census tract with the highest percentage of foreign-born population citywide is in Chinatown, with 62.9 percent.

“The 25th Ward is one of the most diverse wards in the entire city,” said Ugo Okere, 25th ward deputy committeeperson alongside Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez. The ward has a concentration of Mexican and Chinese residents based in Pilsen and Chinatown. “We want to make sure we’re reaching out to folks so we have people who speak Chinese at polling places in Chinatown, making sure polling places in Pilsen have folks staffed with people who can speak Spanish.”

Okere is part of a network of organizations and officials across the city pushing to recruit young and multilingual election judges to prevent the chaos that occurred during the March primary, while also expanding language access for those who need it.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago is one organization that usually monitors polling sites on election day, alerting election officials about language access and other ballot access issues. That includes making sure that bilingual election judges have the right identification and signage and that those who need language services are directed where they need to go. AAAJ policy director Justin Valas said they’ll be launching a poll worker recruitment campaign as well.

“Being a multilingual election judge really helps folks in a tangible way, for those who feel comfortable doing it,” Valas said. “It’s an important way to provide that support on election day and early voting as well.”

Hugo Antunez is a 41-year-old resident of Cicero originally from Little Village. He was motivated for the first time to serve as an election judge this year because of signs of voter suppression.

“I’m just worried about the climate, with what’s going on. I think a lot of people have the feeling that Trump is going to steal the election and I felt compelled to at least bear witness to what’s happening,” he said. “I figure I’m younger, a little healthier.”

Antunez also let the Cook County Clerk’s office know he can serve at polling places where Spanish speakers are needed.

Voting rights advocacy organization Chicago Votes is one of the partners for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners’ push to recruit young election judges. They do voter education and outreach to high schools, and are also reaching out to students for election judge recruitment, said the organization’s co-deputy director Jen Dean.

One of those students is Breanna Mcelhaney, a 19-year-old student at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park. She said she’s motivated to serve as an election judge knowing the importance of this election and to learn more about the election process firsthand.

“It’s something I’ve never done before and I thought it would be a fun experience,” she said. “I take it as a learning experience.”

Dean wanted to emphasize to young people that they can get paid $230 for their work as an election judge. Dean said Chicago Votes wants to recruit 3,000 young election judges to ensure the November election is fully staffed. She said they’re also reinforcing that the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is providing PPE and making sure there are masks and hand sanitizer available.

To her, that’s part of making sure that “COVID isn’t an excuse for voter suppression.”   v

You can apply to be a poll worker here.

Do you have a tip about civic participation, voting rights or voter suppression surrounding this upcoming election? Alex Arriaga is a reporter covering these issues through the lens of Chicago’s immigrant communities. You can email her at alex@citybureau.org.

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.