SEP 29, 2021
Board of election officials outline plans to begin consolidating precincts, update ballot casting
Voters prepare to cast their ballots in November 2020 at Monroe Elementary in Logan Square. [Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago]
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is planning to consolidate precincts and bring back ballot drop boxes to keep up with trends in the way people cast their votes, officials said Tuesday.
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners' new leader Charles Holiday Jr. fielded an array of questions from aldermen on the board’s proposed $25.6 million budget, which is a 53 percent increase from 2021. The expansion is designed to help officials ramp up for next year’s statewide elections and redraw precinct boundaries after the city’s ward remap.
The board plans next year to work with other local and state leaders to modernize the Illinois Election Code “by reducing the number of election precincts throughout the city,” according to budget documents.
Through the update, the city plans to eventually replace its 2,069 precincts with between 100 and 500 “modernized accessible universal voting centers where any Chicago resident can vote on election day from any location in the city,” budget documents show.
But making a complete shift from thousands of precincts to so-called voting centers would require a change at the state level, Holiday told aldermen on Tuesday.
Responding to a question from Ald. Daniel La Spata (1), Holiday confirmed the board is already working to combine some voting precincts, ultimately decreasing the number of polling stations citywide.
“We’re looking at where there’s a large turnout as far as early voting, vote-by-mail and a small turnout with in-person [voting],” Holiday said, adding his department is planning to consolidate some precincts with lower in-person voter turnout.
And when precincts are combined, Holiday said the board of elections needs to ensure each voting location “is large enough” to host both the precincts and that it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In response to questions from Ald. Tom Tunney (44), board of elections officials said less than half of the city’s polling places are ADA-compliant, often with doors that are too narrow for wheelchair-users to pass.
Adam Lasker, general counsel for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said the board meets regularly with Chicago Public Schools and other sister agencies where public buildings are used as polling places.
“When we find an ADA infraction at a school, we go out and survey just for polling place room within that building and the entrances to get to that place,” Lasker said. “If we do find an infraction, that’s a school that has an ADA violation, whether it’s used as a polling place or not.”
“The sooner you all make a decision and offer a polling place, the better,” Tunney said. “If people are going to engage, the sooner we nail down these locations, the less questions people will have on Election Day.”
Tunney also raised concern about the city spending money on updating polling places if they won’t be used once the city switches to a voting center model.
Lasker said Chicago Board of Election officials have “been pushing for 15 to 20 years to go to [a] vote center model.” But “because the Springfield legislature has still not given it to us, we do have to just keep operating under the status quo, and hopefully sooner than later make that change.”
The city has had to move polling places out of nursing homes, which Ald. Felix Cardona (31) said has “created a great confusion for people.”
Residents become accustomed to casting their ballots in one location, “then they get upset and they walk away” when the location is changed, Cardona said.
City officials are “looking into” using nursing homes as polling places again, but “we can’t force them to allow us to have a polling place. If we’re allowed to use them, we will,” Holiday said.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3) asked whether the board of elections plans to use drop boxes again, which allow voters to drop their ballots in a secure box outside of polling places.
Holiday told Dowell the drop boxes were “very successful” during the 2020 election and will be used again at each early voting location during the 2022 election.
The election board’s overtime budget is set to jump from $5,500 to more than $752,000 in 2022, and its “extra hire” line item is proposed to increase from more than $67,000 to just more than $2 million. Additionally, the board’s budget for legal expenses is proposed to increase from $922,160 to more than $2.9 million. Election officials told aldermen on Tuesday the proposed spending hike is due in part to an anticipated increase in workload due to this year’s ward remap and the 2023 aldermanic and mayoral elections.
Ald. Marty Quinn (13) asked whether the Board of Elections anticipates the new ward map and precincts will be ready for use for the June 2022 primary election.
"If there [are] any other issues, it won’t be on our end,” Holiday said.
The City Council has until Dec. 1 to agree on a new ward map before the decision is kicked to a voter referendum. The board of elections will "begin notifying voters of their new election information as soon as" the new ward map is certified, Holiday told aldermen on Tuesday.
Department of Administrative Hearings
Separately on Tuesday, aldermen probed the proposed budget for the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings, which would see a budget increase from nearly $7.8 million to more than $8.2 million under Lightfoot’s proposed 2022 budget.
The hearing began at 10:10 a.m., more than one hour after its scheduled start time, as the budget committee was short of its 15-member quorum. Ald. Pat Dowell (3), who chairs the budget committee, told The Daily Line on Tuesday that she does not intend to open a virtual option for aldermen to participate in the budget hearings.
The administrative hearings department is responsible for adjudicating ordinance violations issued by city departments, monitoring case clearance rates and scheduling hearings and motions requests.
Since the pandemic took hold of Chicago, the department has implemented virtual hearings.
Patricia Jackowiak, the director of the Department of Administrative Hearings, said "there's been a learning curve" on the part of both administrative law judges and respondents who "have to get a lot of their documents ahead of time.”
“It’s getting better as people become more familiar with the process,” Jackowiak said.
Chicago’s administrative hearings department plans during the first quarter of 2022 to implement “text message court date reminders for recipients of Chicago Police Department (CPD) issued citations,” according to city documents. Department leaders hope to use the text notifications to raise the court appearance rate, as people in 60 percent of cases are not showing up for their scheduled court dates, Jackowiak said.
Responding to a question from Ald. Scott Waguespack (32), Jackowiak said text messages will not add an additional cost, as developers worked it out "as part of our regular contract with them."
The administrative hearings department would see its full-time employee count increase by one position to 40 total, including the addition of a new “human resources business partner,” according to budget documents.
Additionally, the department plans to grow the e-filing system to allow the police department to file electronically vacant property violations, according to city budget documents.
The administrative hearings department saw a 7-percent decrease and the loss of three full-time equivalent positions between 2020 and this year’s budget.
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