Long before sunrise Tuesday morning, Nakiea Love headed to the United Center after a sleepless night in her South Side home.
Armed with a Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee and a determination to have her voice heard, she sat alone outside the stadium — one of two super sites in Chicago where anyone could vote regardless of assigned polling place — and waited for the doors to open. She said she could not remember a more important election in her lifetime.
“It’s just been a lot,” she said. “It’s been a lot going on. I think it’s been a lot of issues that need to be addressed.”
In the face of a crippling pandemic and months of social unrest, Chicago-area voters have come out in large numbers to cast their ballots in one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in modern history. Nearly all, regardless of party affiliation, said they believed the country’s future to be at stake as they chose between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think this is a moral choice and not just a political choice,” said Oak Park resident Monica Khetarpal, who voted at her local high school Tuesday morning. “The rhetoric has increased civic engagement, which is good, but I think a lot of people are voting out of dread instead of enthusiasm.”
With early voting numbers already announced in suburban Cook, DuPage and Will counties, all three areas are set to shatter records Tuesday for the total number of ballots cast in a single election.
In Chicago, more than 994,727 city residents had voted early, by mail or in person on Election Day by 2 p.m. Tuesday, Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen said. Based on votes at the polls coming in at a pace of roughly 20,000 per hour, turnout was expected to easily top 70%.
“We are on our way, if this pattern were to hold, to reach somewhere between 1.1 million and 1.2 million ballots cast, which would be a very solid turnout,” Allen said. “It would be well over 70%, probably closer to 75%.”
That, however, won’t reach the modern-day record of 83% when Harold Washington won his first bid for mayor in 1983.
Allen also reported “a relatively smooth and uneventful opening” of the city’s 2,069 precincts. Some opened just a tad late, but voters who were in line then indicated they would be able to make it back by the 7 p.m. poll closing time to cast their votes, he said.
As a result, it’s “the first time in several elections” that polling hours won’t be extended in any of the city’s 2,069 precincts, Allen said.
Chicago is one of 44 jurisdictions nationwide where the U.S. Justice Department has sent Civil Rights Division personnel to monitor for compliance with the federal voting rights laws, including any allegations of intimidating or bribing voters, buying and selling votes, impersonating voters, altering vote tallies or stuffing ballot boxes.
With suppression efforts taking place on social media and in local courthouses across the country, many voters worried about how these tactics could affect the final tallies. The concern was particularly high on the city’s South Side, where Black residents have long borne witness to such discrimination.
“I’m just hoping it comes off right,” said 69-year-old Craig Houghton, who lives in the South Shore neighborhood. “I just want it to be a fair election.”
The pandemic loomed large over polling sites, as voters were encouraged to wear face masks and use hand sanitizer before touching the voting machines. Voters were also required to line up 6 feet apart, a reflection of social distancing rules that made long-looking lines move more quickly than expected.
With the majority of votes cast early in light of the pandemic, many polling sites reported no wait times Tuesday.
“It was the easiest voting experience in my life,” Lake Barrington resident John Bochniak said. “I didn’t trust mail-in voting entirely. I figured I’d vote in person to make sure my vote got counted.”
Just outside the entrance to Hawthorne Elementary Scholastic Academy in the Lakeview neighborhood, Birdie Everett Brachbill loitered with a black mask on and an “I Voted” sticker on his chest, a symbol of his decision to defy his doctor’s advice and vote in person.
Brachbill, 21, has cystic fibrosis, which puts him at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19. But Brachbill, who’s a student at the School of the Art Institute, said he wanted to cast his first presidential vote on Election Day — even if it upset his doctor.
“I felt that my vote mattered more than doing it from home,” he said.
In addition to the presidential election, Illinois voters also have an opportunity to weigh in on whether the state should amend its constitution to overhaul its tax code from a flat tax to a graduated-rate system. And they will decide whether Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, gets a fifth term.
It is the presidential election, however, that is driving the day and the turnout.
Rosa Figueroa and her daughter Erika Castillo cast their first presidential ballots Tuesday after becoming citizens two years ago. The Little Village residents said they encourage each other to participate in the country’s democracy because they believe in it.
They both voted for Joe Biden. By doing so, they said, they were speaking up for others who cannot.
“I’m voting for all of those in my community and in my family who give so much to this country but cannot vote because they are undocumented,” Figueroa said in Spanish. “Those of us who can vote, should do it.”
Fifty miles to the northwest in Fox River Grove, 80-year-old Grace Krasno, 80, voted a straight Republican ticket, just as she has every election since immigrating to the United States.
“We came from a social communist country,” she said. “I don’t want to go back to that.”
Her daughter Lucy Ana Krasno said they voted for Trump to oppose abortion, boost the economy and restore order.
“It’s been crazy, especially with the coronavirus and all the looting and disruption. We need order,” she said.
In Rogers Park, Aana Vigen volunteered to work as a Democratic judge for this election in honor of an 80-year-old neighbor who couldn’t do it because of COVID-19 concerns. By raising her hand, Vigen hoped to set an example for her teenage son.
“In the midst of all the grief and heartache of this year, doing active things helps me with the anxiety and the sadness,” Vigen, an ethics professor at Loyola University, said. “It gives me a sense of hope and purpose, and I just hope we keep that spirit regardless of how this election plays out.”
Austin Rodger, 23, and Michelina Ban, 22, plan to do exactly that.
The Gold Coast couple walked together Tuesday to the drop box outside Wrigley Field, where Ban submitted her ballot for Joe Biden — and where a few days earlier Rodger dropped off his ballot for Trump.
Both wearing masks, they talked openly about their political differences. Rodger said he perceives Trump as better for small businesses and the economy. Ban said she believes voting for Biden is better for social reforms.
The pair planned to watch election results together Tuesday night.
Chicago Tribune reporters Robert McCoppin and Elyssa Cherney and Pioneer Press reporter Steve Schering contributed.
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