By Matt Craig
It’s 5 a.m. on Election Day, and five strangers are gathered in a hotel basement. They’re supposed to be together for the next 14 hours. Not all of them will make it to the end.
The strangers are election judges, regular citizens who report to their assigned location at 5 a.m. and work until voting closes at 7 p.m., all for just $140. Well, $200 if they complete the four-hour training class. Two of the five judges here at precinct 43 have not been trained, a fact that becomes apparent as the 6 a.m. opening approaches.
In the morning hours, this Lincoln Park precinct will suffer from ill-informed judges, confused instructions, balky machines, and overcrowding. The wait at the polling place, in the basement of the Inn at Lincoln Park on West Diversey, will cause a few people to leave. “This is f—— miserable,” one man in line whispers to another. “They couldn’t pull off voter fraud if they tried.”
The first voter, Sarah Ye, arrives twenty minutes before the polls are set to open and is told to wait in the hotel lobby. She’s eager, having spent the last month canvassing around the city for Sean Casten (D) and even in Texas for Beto O’Rourke (D). She sacrificed her morning run to cut the lines and cast her vote before work.
Her arrival causes a panic downstairs, where the judges are coming to the realization that they are far from ready. Conversations begin to turn confrontational. It’s one curveball too many when the hotel manager comes down a few minutes later to insist
that voters use an exterior door at the top of the stairs and not come through the lobby “for the safety of our many guests.,”
Rain begins to fall as a handful of people now wait on the sidewalk. When the clock reads 6 a.m. they are summoned down the narrow staircase to receive their ballots. The judge there, an older man with close-cropped hair and missing teeth, gazes at the ballots he is supposed to distribute as though he’s seeing them for the first time. He begins initialing some and handing them to the first crop of voters.
“You do know you’re supposed to be checking to see if they’re registered, right?” says the election coordinator sitting nearby, dressed in loose fitting jeans and a graphic t- shirt of Godzilla.
Thankfully, the first voters know the drill, realizing that not only have they not been checked in but they also haven’t been given a second ballot for local measures, such as a referendum on a minimum wage increase or one on a plastic straw ban.
“Who is in charge here?” shouts Jimmy LaRue, a white-haired businessman, here to vote, who first spots the error. The coordinator has stepped out to call for more judges, and nobody answers LaRue’s plea. He begins to instruct the remaining judges on
the proper procedure.
By 6:10 a.m., a line of people waiting to vote fills the basement. A sign on the wall reads “Occupancy by more than 50 persons is dangerous and unlawful,” but no one seems to notice. Judges scramble to check in the first group retroactively and distribute the newly found measures ballots while attending to those who have just arrived, causing a log jam. Slowly, votes are finally being successfully completed.
“I’m shaking right now I’m so upset,” LaRue says after casting his ballot around 6:30. “It’s not my responsibility to know that stuff.”
It takes Ye even longer. A judge improperly initials her first ballot, spoiling it, and she’s forced to start over from scratch. On her second attempt, she fills out the front page only to realize that half of the blanks on the back are already filled in. When she goes to enter her third attempt into the electronic machine, it comes up with an error message.
“It says over-voted,” one of the judges says flatly. “You want me to just put it through?”
“What do you mean?” asks Ye. The judge pushes a button the back of the machine and the ballot slides through, making a beeping noise to acknowledge it has been counted.
“This is my first time actually filling out a paper ballot,” Ye says as she steps out into the rain. “And probably my last.”
The longest wait comes for those who arrive as Ye is leaving. The process slows once again when officials realize that the hotel’s only lift for handicapped voters is in its lobby, the door to which has been locked by management.
The low ceilings, carpeted floors and lack of air-conditioning in the basement are creating a cave-like environment, and the wait causes a few people to give up and leave.
Finally, around 7:30 a.m., reinforcements arrive. The two new recruits have worked as an election judges before and appear to know what they’re doing. As they get settled in, an election investigator arrives to send one of the original judges home. He tells another to take a break.
“In a word, chaos,” Barkley Payne, a middle-aged Lincoln Park resident, says of his experience. “Ineptitude, not qualified, poorly trained, no leadership. It’s pathetic and disheartening.”
Payne shakes his head as he reveals that this scene is nothing new. Two years ago, he stood in line for over an hour during the early morning window before needing to leave to catch a meeting at work, returning to vote in the evening. He has no doubt the experience is likely to discourage voting for those who that don’t have the time or patience, and wonders how many people’s votes around the city won’t count due to the disorganization of polling places such as this one.
“You think this is an isolated incident?” Payne says. “I hate to put it this way, but this is Lincoln Park. You can only imagine what happens in other precincts.”