By Jason Keyser
CHICAGO — Illinois’ experiment with allowing people to register and vote on Election Day ran into bottlenecks in Chicago, leading to lines of hundreds, including at one polling site where the last voter didn’t cast a ballot until after 3 a.m. and others just gave up.
Crowds kept entertained with cracking jokes, dancing, placing pizza orders and live-tweeting their travails. One voter pulled out a ukulele and played for hours to entertain the crowd.
But despite a jovial atmosphere, some wondered how a process that’s been done in other states for decades could have gone so badly.
“For so many people to have had to leave yesterday because they didn’t have the time to wait eight or nine hours in line, it really broke my heart,” said Lauren Scott, a 26-year-old software engineer. “I felt like we were failing as a democratic system.”
State lawmakers passed legislation in the spring to allow same-day registration as a trial that could be made permanent if things went smoothly. Last-minute registrations are allowed in Washington, D.C., and 10 states.
Rather than encourage people to procrastinate, the measures are intended for those who have recently changed addresses or who did not realize their registration information was not up to date. Proponents say it also increases turnout.
But the Chicago election board said the extra procedures were cumbersome.
“No matter what the changes, if it’s related to elections, the rollout is likely to be a little bit bumpy,” said Wendy Underhill, program manager for elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Officials in Chicago were also caught off guard by how many showed up at five designated sites. Suburban Cook County, which has about the same population, decided to set up 18 sites and encountered few delays; the longest wait was two hours in Evanston.
Rockford authorities also had difficulty keeping up, with about 50 still in line to register when polls closed, said Ken Harper, executive director of the City of Rockford Board of Election Commissioners. But the longest wait was about 45 minutes.
“It was a long, trying day,” Harper said. “Usually, by the afternoon on Election Day, we’d be winding up, preparing to bring our judges back from the polling places, but we were at the counter all day, registering people to vote.”
The State Board of Elections said it was unaware of any same-day registration problems elsewhere.
Chicago also ran into problems with a shortage of election judges after bogus automated telephone calls dissuaded a few thousand of them from turning up at the polls. The calls, which falsely told judges they needed to attend additional training sessions, are under investigation.
At the Welles Park polling station in the North Side neighborhood of Ravenswood, hundreds seeking last-minute registration filled a gymnasium and a line snaked outside.
The handful of poll workers couldn’t keep up. A displeased Mayor Rahm Emanuel stopped by to encourage people to stick it out.
He called for a review and lauded those who waited as an example of “what makes this city and country so great.”
But some gave up, including a woman who climbed out a ground-floor window rather than work her way back through the crowd.
“Everybody was being really jovial, but there was still a lot of tension, a lot of frustration, like ‘Why on earth is this happening?’” said Scott, who needed to update her registration after moving from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
After more than eight hours she finally voted, at about 1 a.m., and tweeted a photo of herself pumping her arm in the air.