Many of the voters wore gloves and a few had donned surgical masks. People were friendly, but most chatted from 6 feet away. Election judge Mary Pawlak had to extend her arm fully to hand out ballots.
“It’s probably the first time in all my years that we’ve never lost a pen,” observed Pawlak, who’s been an election judge in Utica for 50 years. “Ninety percent of them brought their own pens.”
Given how fearful voters were, Pawlak was unsurprised with Tuesday’s turnout at Utica Village Hall: 29% for the Utica precinct 1 (the village proper) and 26% for Utica precinct 2 (the rural area). For Utica, that’s low; and Pawlak is convinced the totals would have been higher by double digits were it not for coronavirus.
But even with the virus scaring many voters away, La Salle County posted better numbers than one of its neighbors – Bureau County posted an abysmal 11.6% – and the final tally of 22.5% turnout fell close to the county’s average for a presidential primary.
Last week, Shaw Media asked local county clerks to predict voter turnout and all guessed high – most predictions ranged from 30% to 40% – but that was before coronavirus cases mushroomed and sent Illinois into varying degrees of lockdown.
“I predicted 42% and that was from looking at historical data,” said clerk Dan Kuhn of Putnam County, which tallied 26% turnout, “but with the circumstances then (last week) and now, there was a big difference.”
La Salle County clerk Lori Bongartz had predicted 30% but came away disappointed, if also unsurprised.
“People were urged to stay inside, so we knew we wouldn’t get a lot of people out,” Bongartz said Tuesday night.
But while Putnam and Bureau county totals were comparatively low, La Salle County finished closer to its historical average for a presidential primary.
While this year’s turnout falls well short of the 2016 presidential primary that drew 41% turnout (thanks mainly to Donald Trump), this year’s primary came in higher than what was recorded in three lackluster primaries over the past five decades.
Ho-hum presidential contests between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (2012), George W. Bush and John Kerry (2004) and Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford (1976) posted totals of 20½%, 21½% and 20%, respectively.
And it looks as if La Salle County has a contested Democratic contest for state’s attorney to thank for boosting this year’s total. Pawlak is among the local judges who spotted known Republicans taking out Democratic ballots to settle the contest between Brian Vescogni and winning nominee Todd Martin.
Here again, the data back that up. A review of the canvass confirmed Republicans either stayed home or switched ballots. Only in four of the county’s 119 precincts did the number of Republican ballots crack triple digits.
Voting was also relatively uniform, with no notable spikes or hot pockets to drive up area-wide turnout. A referendum in Streator did not push turnout past 30% in any Bruce or Eagle precincts and voting was no more active in Martin and Vescogni’s turf than elsewhere in the county. A review of Mendota (Martin) and Peru (Vescogni) precincts showed no polling place that exceeded 30% turnout.
Voters also showed a degree of determination in casting ballots, evidenced by foot traffic at polls that were hastily moved. Peru precincts 10 and 11 were abruptly relocated from Liberty Village to Faith Church on Wenzel Road, yet turnout at the two precincts was a relatively strong 22% and 28%, respectively.
“I was surprised to have as many as we did,” observed Sandra Blanco, an election judge at the Faith Church polls. “And we never had more than 15 people in the room at the same time, which was good.”
Blanco said she sensed more interest in the state’s attorney’s race in than in the Democratic primary for president. Joe Biden won handily in La Salle County, but Illinois as a whole was called for streaking Biden over slumping Bernie Sanders within minutes of the polls closing.
It was Martin-Vescogni that drew mostly Democrats, Blanco said, and county-wide the partisan ratio was 66% to 34%, Democrat over Republican.
Blanco believes a notable segment of the electorate was simply determined to vote, and coronavirus be damned.
“Why am I an election judge? Because I believe in democracy, and people think that, too.”
Tom Collins can be reached via (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.