CHICAGO (AP) — Presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders rallied voters via telephone and live stream and election workers were delivering hand sanitizer at polling places Tuesday as Illinois’ primary got underway amid a global pandemic.
Biden is hoping to expand his lead over Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination as Illinois votes, along with Florida and Arizona. Ohio also was scheduled to hold its primary, but its governor said Monday he wants to delay in-person voting until June.
State officials declined to postpone the election despite concerns about low turnout during the COVID-19 outbreak. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has ordered schools, restaurants and bars closed due to the virus, said Sunday “we have to elect leaders, even in less than ideal circumstances.”
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough said shortly after the polls opened that she had heard of no immediate problems at the county’s polling sites and expected “things to go well” on Tuesday.
“I’m just hopeful that we’ll have a good day voting for the people,” she said.
There were some signs of early confusion, though.
Timna Axel, director of communications for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said voters have been calling the group’s hotline all morning to get help finding their polling places. Election authorities around the state scrambled to find alternate locations as nursing homes and other typical polling sites backed out amid concern about the coronavirus.
The steady flow of calls — including from some polling place workers — is “unusual for a primary,” Axel said.
“We all understand that these are really unusual circumstances and we all want eligible voters not to be disenfranchised,” Axel said. “We’re going to need to work together to make sure they can actually cast a ballot today.”
In suburban Will County, all polling places opened on time and were staffed thanks to people who volunteered to fill the spots of election judges who decided against working. Charles Pelkie, chief of staff for the county clerk, said at least 200 judges had canceled by Monday.
“We’ve been very fortunate that the public is stepping up,” he said.
Supplies for each site included disinfectant and poll workers are being asked to encourage people to keep their distance from one another while waiting to vote, he said.
Officials with all 108 of Illinois’ local election offices are “well aware” of the polling place precautions suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s Department of Public Health, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.
“They’re all doing their best to put those into practice,” he said Tuesday morning.
As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, he said no reports of problems at polling places around Illinois had reached the Illinois State Board of Elections, but he added that problems crop up in every election.
Also on the Illinois ballot are primaries for congressional office — including a rematch between Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski and progressive Marie Newman for a Chicago-area seat previously held by Lipinski’s father — as well as state Legislature, Cook County state’s attorney and judicial contests, including for seats on the Supreme Court.
Officials encouraged people last week to vote by mail and extended hours at early voting sites, where election staff were sanitizing voting equipment, asking people waiting in line to space themselves out and distributing hand sanitizer to avoid transmission of the virus.
Voters seemed to be heeding the advice. Chicago had surpassed previous records for early voting as of Sunday. Statewide there were 504,000 early votes cast and 294,000 mail ballots sent to voters as of Monday, the Illinois State Board of Elections reported. That’s up from 400,000 early votes and 160,000 mail ballots as of the day before the 2016 primary.
The coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough for most people, though it can cause more severe illness for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.
Sanders, a Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist, drew thousands of people to a rally in Chicago’s Grant Park earlier this month, before officials began issuing warnings against large gatherings, changing the face of campaigning for the forseeable future.
Door knocking and election night parties have been canceled. On Monday night, Sanders held a virtual rally to encourage supporters in states voting Tuesday.
Sanders lost Illinois in 2016 by less than 2 percentage points to Hillary Clinton, who was born in the state.
Among the voters who was with Sanders in 2016 and is sticking by him this time is Silvia Machado, 61, of Algonquin. At the rally in Grant Park, Machado said she likes Sanders’ push for Medicare for all and believes he’s the candidate who will make life easier for people struggling to pay for health care or to afford college.
“I do feel if instead of going toward war, my taxes can help people who are needy in this country to get a leg up, I’m all for that,” Machado said. “He’s the only candidate that really spoke to those issues has been speaking to those issues for decades.”
But Biden has received more support from Illinois’ Democratic leaders, including endorsements from statewide Democratic office holders, most of the congressional delegation and both U.S. senators. Pritzker said Monday that the former vice president is the best candidate to take on President Donald Trump.
Biden held a telephone town hall on Monday night, and other supporters including his wife Jill Biden, Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also did phone calls on his behalf.
They acknowledged the difficult circumstances of campaigning during the outbreak but also said the crisis made clear the importance of having steady leadership in the White House.
“I know it’s not going to be easy. We can’t go door-to-door like we used to but we can certainly make the phone calls, we can reach out to people,” Duckworth said in a call with voters and campaign volunteers in which she predicted Biden will win the state but said she’s hoping for “big turnout.”
Associated Press writers Kathleen Foody and Rick Callahan in Indianapolis contributed to this report.