SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday that Illinois' primary election won't be postponed, even as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state reached triple digits, the legislative session was halted and the federal government suggested avoiding gatherings of 10 people or more.
During his daily briefing about the potentially deadly illness caused by the coronavirus, Pritzker pointed to Tuesday's election as a touchstone of normalcy in a chaotic time. His state public health director reported that the number of cases in Illinois has hit 105 in 15 counties.
“This is the right thing to do. Our democracy needs to go on, we need to elect leaders,” Pritzker said. “If we cancel these elections, when would you have an election?”
Ohio officials took action Monday to try to postpone that state's primary, one of four scheduled for Tuesday along with Illinois, Florida and Arizona.
Pritzker's briefing began just after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the 10-person gathering guidelines. But President Donald Trump said postponing balloting is “unnecessary" and Pritzker said health experts he consulted convinced him that voting could be conducted safely.
“Every time somebody goes and votes, a voting machine that people are touching, it's being wiped down,” Pritzker said. “We have guidance to all the election judges to make sure to maintain social-separation distance.”
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For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Amid a building concern over in-person balloting, voters turned to alternatives in record fashion. The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners announced that 118,000 vote-by-mail ballots had been cast, an all-time record. Statewide, elections officials reported 504,000 early votes cast and 294,000 mail ballots sent to applicants. At the same time in 2016, when state records were set, there were 400,000 early votes and 160,000 ballots mailed.
Officials were scrambling to make sure traditional polls would open and operate smoothly. Chicago elections officials were forced to relocate 168 of the city's polling places, about 8%, after hosts asked to have them moved. Outside the city, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough was sending tweets in search of election judges, offering $150 and a waiver of training requirements.
Yarbrough even made a special appeal to bar and restaurant employees, who were scheduled to be out of work starting Tuesday after Pritzker ordered those establishments closed through month's end to curtail the virus' spread.
But while elections continue, those already elected are staying home. The Illinois House on Monday postponed its session in Springfield until danger from COVID-19 abates. Both the House and Senate had already canceled three session days this week.
“Any call for session will not be made lightly — the greatest priority is the consideration of the health and safety of all our communities,” Jessica Basham, chief of staff to the House speaker, wrote in a memo to members. “A call to return to Springfield amidst this public health emergency would occur only if necessary.”
John Patterson, spokesman for the Senate president, said that chamber's schedule is under evaluation.
“The cancellation of this week’s session days bought us more time to explore legislative priorities and scheduling,” Patterson said. “We are taking it day by day at this point.”