The parking lot outside the northwest entrance to Eastland Mall was so busy Friday that it resembled a classic Black Friday crowd. But instead of shoppers, they were voters.
Around 5 p.m. Friday, one hour before the polls closed for the final time at the mall, a line formed with early voters spaced 6 feet apart, starting from the front of the retail space converted into a polling location between Hibbett Sports and Amy’s Hallmark. It stretched down the entire length of the wing of the mall that ends at the former Bergners.
Based on the pace, it was an efficient operation, with most voters breezing through the voting process quickly.
"It was pretty much a voter a minute,” said election judge supervisor Kristin Jackson. “Pretty much people have been pleasant,” she shared, even when she had to turn people away when the polling place closed at 6 p.m. Jackson let them know they could early-vote over the weekend at Grossinger Motors Arena in downtown Bloomington.
Election judges directed voters to machines based on whether they lived in Bloomington, or in Normal and the rest of rural McLean County. One judge estimated it was about an 8-to-1 ratio of Bloomington city voters versus those from the rest of the county.
The brightly lit space seemed almost festive. Every once and awhile you could hear a cheer go up when a first-time voter walked up and signed in. When they finished guiding their completed ballot into the machine, the act was met with a room full of applause.
“We always do that for first-time voters. We announce it on both sides (before and after the vote) because we want to let them know we’re so proud and glad they came in and we like to encourage it,” said veteran election judge and site coordinator Terry Luce.
She added, “We don’t do it on Election Day because we don’t want to disrupt things. But with early voting it’s a different atmosphere."
Hundreds of voters
Luce said the Eastland Mall location was averaging 400 voters a day during the three weekends in October and each day this past week. Another election judge said it appeared the final tally for the last day of voting at the mall saw twice as many voters as the daily average.
Luce said it was wonderful to see so many parents with their children.
“We like to talk to the kids and say, 'Hey you're helping mommy,' and we ask, 'Do you have some advice for what she should do?’ "We like to involve them,” she shared about most election judges' interactions.
According to Luce, no one was required to vote provisionally because they didn’t have the proper identification for same-day registration and voting. “I’ve noticed less need for them (provisional ballots)," she said.
She continued, "During the primary at the polling place where I worked, we didn’t have any provisionals either. We’ve had fewer and fewer of them we’ve had to do at each election.”
Illinois allows same-day voter registration so you can register and vote immediately. Would-be voters need two forms of ID, one of which shows a current address. Luce said election judges allow one of those forms of ID to be displayed on their phone. She suspects that has helped reduce the need for provisional voting.
“Most people can bring up a bank statement or lease agreement that shows an address," she said.
'Thousands' surrender VBM ballots
As for mail-in ballots, she said many people requested and received one, but they made the request to have a backup plan. Luce said the number “is in the thousands” of people who surrendered their empty ballots at the mall polling site and opted instead to vote in person.
“Other people have said, ‘I never requested it so I just destroyed it,’ while others said, ‘I made a mistake on it so I destroyed it,'" she said.
She went on to explain, “We’ve had some people come in and say they received the first Bloomington ballot that was mailed, but not the supplemental mail-in ballots that had to be sent because two judicial retention questions were left off the ballots sent out by mail.”
None of what she has heard surprises Luce.
“There was so much stimulus. They got so much paper from so many places—the Democratic party, the Republican party and umpteen other places telling them things,” Luce said. “There were some websites in which people clicked something and didn’t even realize they requested a ballot.”
Luce said election judges have also been dealing with voters who said they never received the mail-in ballot they requested and then others, such as Harshad Kulkarni, who couldn’t produce the ballot he received in the mail.
Kulkarni said it got lost somehow during his move to a new house this week.
“It had to get cancelled, but that was a great thing because now I know this one counts (the vote he cast Friday) and that mail-in ballot is no longer valid,” said Kulkarni after completing the very last ballot collected at the Eastland Mall polling place.
When people arrive at their polling location and want to vote but had a ballot mailed to them, election judges will call into the election authority to have the mail-in ballot officially cancelled so no one can vote using someone else’s assigned ballot.
Kulkarni was pleasantly surprised by his first-ever early voting experience. He said he voted early because of the uncertainty of how long lines could be on Election Day and what he saw as the high risk of possible exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.
“The process was actually less time consuming than I thought, but I think that’s because it was at the end of the day. Otherwise I think it could have been a longer line,” he observed.
He said the pandemic has made this election feel a bit unusual but he still has confidence in the system.
“My vote will definitely make a difference and yes, every vote counts," Kulkarni said, with what appeared to be a smile crossing his face that was covered by a disposable, light-weight mask.
Grossinger Motors Arena remains the only early voting location for City of Bloomington, Town of Normal or rural McLean County voters before Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3. The arena will be open for voting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, and from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday.
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