Column: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker never should have let this election go forward today

Column: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker never should have let this election go forward today

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Illinois officials point fingers over primary voting issues

"I Voted" stickers on the table for voters after voting at Trinity Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Some polling places in Evanston have been moved in an effort to reduce exposure of senior citizens to the COVID-19 coronavirus.(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The people of Illinois were cheated out of their vote on Tuesday. State officials should have known that it would be impossible to hold a fair election in the midst of a national health pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker never should have allowed this to happen.

On one hand, state officials are telling people to stay at home from restaurants and bars, and at the same time, they’re saying it’s OK to go to the polls. This kind of mixed messaging is the last thing people need at a time when so much confusion exists over the coronavirus that people aren’t sure exactly what to believe.

Some states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Ohio, had the common sense to postpone their March 17 primaries to later in the spring. Illinois, however, decided that there was nothing wrong with allowing voters to go in and out a voting booth, and touch a screen with their fingers or a germ-magnet stylus.

Many voters may have stayed away from the polls, deciding instead to forfeit an opportunity to perform their civic duty in one of the most contentious local and national primaries we’ve had in a long time.

Illinoisans should never have been forced to make that choice.

It was obvious from the moment the polls opened that a huge mistake had been made. Normal Election Day problems seen every year, such as equipment shortages, late poll openings and computer glitches, were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Some polling places didn’t even have hand sanitizer or cleaning wipes.

The problems were mounting even before Election Day. New federal guidelines were issued Monday urging Americans to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 for the next two weeks, yet candidates and election officials were still telling people to get out and vote. That was irresponsible, not knowing whether Illinois would experience the long lines that occurred in other states during previous primaries.

Last week, Chicago Board of Elections officials changed the location of some 200 polling places because of coronavirus concerns, adding to the confusion on Tuesday. In some cases, people were crammed into consolidated locations, allowing the virus to potentially spread.

Poll workers refused to even show up at some locations. State and local officials had scrambled days before to recruit new people for the job, including young adults who might want to earn extra money, but few took the bait.

Shortly after the polls opened and it became clear that a huge mistake had been made, the finger pointing began. Chicago election officials were blaming Pritzker, the governor was blaming the city and, meanwhile, the people of Illinois were falling through the cracks.

In a dispute that carried over to Twitter, Chicago Board of Elections officials accused the governor of ignoring their request to call off in-person voting because of a shortage of election judges and other virus-related issues. Elections officials said they had pushed for strictly voting by mail.

The governor’s chief of staff tweeted that it was a lie. Pritzker’s office shot back with its own charges.

In a statement, Pritzker’s spokeswoman said the governor’s office had offered to enlist the National Guard to help with the election, but the city turned it down. He also accused election officials of failing to cut through red tape so that 2,000 young people from the Mikva Challenge jobs program could work as judges.

In his defense, the statement argued that the governor could not unilaterally cancel or delay an election.

“Elections are the cornerstone of our democracy and we could not risk confusion and disenfranchisement in the courts,” the statement said. “No one is saying this is a perfect solution. We have no perfect solutions at the moment. We only have least bad solutions.”

The governor insists that the criticism by election officials is politically motivated. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But it does matter.

It is commendable that the governor understands the importance of giving each and every citizen the right to cast their ballot in a timely manner with as few obstacles as possible. But there must also be room for sensible adjustments.

Those 118,000 absentee ballots weren’t going anywhere. The more than 145,000 ballots that were cast early would still be around. And a vote cast a month from now would be just as valid as a vote cast on Tuesday. There likely would be more of them as well.

The bottom line is that the Illinois primary didn’t work in the best interest of the people. Yes, city, state and county election officials had a hand in the failure too.

But the same rule applies to Pritzker as it does to Donald Trump. The buck stops with the person at the top.

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