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An Illinois primary like no other: Low turnout amid coronavirus concerns

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Elizabeth Olin casts her ballot while wearing a mask amid coronavirus concerns at an early voting site in the Loop on March 16, 2020.

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Illinoisans readied for a primary Election Day like no other Tuesday, with fear of the spread of coronavirus raising concerns of low turnout and too few poll workers as government leaders exhorted healthy voters to do their part to move democracy forward at the ballot box.

With polls open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., the push to get people to vote came despite new federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to avoid crowds of 50 people or more.

In Springfield, even as he mandated the cancellation of any gathering of 50 or more people in the state per the CDC guideline, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he felt “good” about the decision to continue with Election Day.

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“We have to have our elections continue, in my opinion. This is the right thing to do. Our democracy needs to go on. We need to elect leaders. If we canceled these elections, you know, when would you have an election?” he told reporters in Springfield.

“But the most important thing is we’re taking every precaution,” he said. “Every time somebody goes and votes on a voting machine that people are touching, it’s being wiped down. We have guidance to all the election judges to make sure to maintain social separation distance. We’re making sure that we have sanitizer at locations that people are voting at.”

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There also were concerns about voter confusion of where to vote after polling places across the state were moved to avoid places such as nursing homes and privately owned buildings where owners did not want to risk the spread of coronavirus to residents or employees. Officials urged voters to check the websites of the local election authority for new polling locations before heading out to vote.

The threat of the coronavirus clouded the view of election officials and politicians on voter enthusiasm and turnout, despite being a presidential election year featuring a battle for the Democratic nomination between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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“I wish it wasn’t the case, but I think we’re going to have fewer folks getting out -- particularly folks who are very concerned,” said Marie Newman, who is challenging eight-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski in the Southwest Side and suburban 3rd Congressional District after losing to him two years ago by two percentage points.

Pritzker: Election still on, despite coronavirus concerns

The previous record low for a presidential primary since 1942 in Chicago was 24.5% in 2012, when then-President Barack Obama’s nomination was certain while Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were battling for the Republican nomination.

Statewide, as of Monday, 504,000 early votes had been cast and 294,000 mail ballots sent to voters. The day before the 2016 presidential primary, there were 400,000 early votes cast and 160,000 mail ballots sent, State Board of Elections officials said.

Four years ago, nearly 3.6 million ballots were cast in the presidential primary, representing 46.5% turnout. That year saw battles for the presidential nomination in both parties, but of the total ballots cast more than 2 million or 58% were Democratic.

The coronavirus threat quickly shutdown traditional campaign activity, including large rallies and in-person door-to-door campaigning. Instead, candidates resorted to social media and robocalls to get the message out.

For Biden and Sanders, the choice was to hold virtual rallies and town halls streamed over the internet. Each had live streaming events planned on Monday night.

With 155 delegates at stake in Illinois, Biden entered the day with 894 compared to Sanders with 743. A total of 1,991 delegates are needed to win the nomination. Biden also has consolidated the backing of Illinois’ Democratic political establishment, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Statewide, Republicans will choose among four contenders vying to challenge Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin, who is seeking a fifth term.

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