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High traffic crashes elections site

Voters cast their ballots polling place inside Gregory Middle School Tuesday November 6 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

Voters cast their ballots at the polling place inside Gregory Middle School on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 8, 2012 6:28AM

A long — and, at times, frustrating — day at polling places throughout Chicago ended Tuesday with voters helping decide the presidential race, the future of Congress and scores of other issues.

Within the first two hours of voting, 300,000 to 400,000 Chicagoans cast ballots. Officials predicted a similar turnout to four years ago, when 73 percent of registered voters in the city went to the polls.

A massive interest in finding the right polling place crashed Chicago’s election website. Unprecedented traffic from voters searching for new polling places and high interest in the presidential election were to blame.

“We are, of course, sorry, for the inability to access the website this morning,” said Langdon Neal, chairman of the Chicago Board of Elections. “We were completely overwhelmed between 6 and 8 this morning.”

The Chicago site redirected traffic to the State Board of Elections site for voters searching for their polling places.

Officials haven’t ruled out a hacker attack, but they suspect the crash was more likely caused by a high volume of electronic traffic.

Telephone operators were added Tuesday morning to the election board’s “control room,” a phone bank where about 80 people answered incessantly ringing phones, which they said came from confused voters and election judges reporting problems with voting machines.

Because of once-in-a-decade redistricting, about 20 percent of registered voters were shifted into a different precinct than in the previous election. And 500 fewer polling places were open this election cycle because of budgeting issues.

“I think the redistricting had a huge effect, even though we [communicated] to every single voter … and we’ve been talking about it for 30 days,” Neal said.

He acknowledged that the elections board didn’t anticipate the volume of voters who would turn to the website to find their polling place.

“I think we have done as much outreach as we can do,” he said. “Now that we see an increased use of technology by the voters [we’re looking into] having a more massive and robust internet system that can handle the tremendous load that we had. We’ve never had it before.”

Four of the city’s 2,000 precincts didn’t open on time this morning, Neal said, but said there were no reports of voters being turned away. “We don’t want to lose one single vote,” he said.

“We’re doing our best to address a high-traffic situation which we’ve never encountered,” said Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections. “We’re receiving an unusual number of calls on very specific topics: people being told they’re not on the rolls when they are, and people being told they need ID in situations where they don’t.”

Frustrations abounded at polling places.

At least four election judges were removed, two suspected of being drunk, a third for sleeping, and a forth for “shouting at everyone,” said Allen.

Some voters showed up at the wrong places to cast their vote, due to redistricting. Many said they received conflicting instructions from election judges and city officials.

Jarita Thompson showed up at her old polling place on North Avenue, but found out she was supposed to vote elsewhere because of redistricting.

“They just told me that I would have to do a provisional ballot,” she said, “and they told me in order for my vote to be valid, I had to go downtown within three days to make sure my vote would count.”

A number of people were doing provisional ballots “because their names were not on the polling place list,” she said.

After nearly an hour of trying to sort it out, it was time for her to go to work, where “I made a lot of phone calls. I called the Board of Elections, and they said, ‘go to the new polling place.’ ’’

She spent lunchtime heading to the Flannery Apartments in the 1500 block of North Clybourn. “It took my whole lunch hour,” she said, but she finally cast her ballot.

“It was a very frustrating morning,” she said.

Katie Heupel showed up to vote at the Sulzer Regional Library on North Lincoln Avenue, only to be told her records weren’t there. She’d moved and changed her address. Even though she had a voter registration card showing she had informed the Board of Elections of her new address, and it showed the Sulzer library as her new place to cast a vote, election judges couldn’t find her information.

They wanted her to do a provisional ballot, but said it might not be counted for seven to 10 days.

Worried her vote wouldn’t get tallied, she decided to go to her old polling place, a firehouse on North Damen. Sure enough, her records — with her old address — were still there. She said she voted at the firehouse, using her driver’s license with her old address.

A voter at the Belden School at 4257 N. Tripp said she saw a tired, frustrated woman enter the school and announce she wasn’t going to leave until she got to cast her ballot. The woman had moved, and said she’d been sent to three different polling places to vote.

“‘She said, ‘I’m not going anywhere else — I’m staying here till I vote.’ She was adamant,” the witness said. “She kept saying, ‘I just want to vote.’ ”

The Belden School election judges were doing everything they could to help her, the witness said.

Democratic Precinct Captain Ealy Gatson, 57, traveled to several South Side polling places Tuesday, and she said she’s never seen such disorganization and lack of supplies.

“None of these places have provisional ballots, and the judges are new. They told me someone from Elections told them to write ‘provisional’ on a regular ballot sheet,” she said. “Every one of these places [doesn’t] have enough provisional ballots. Some of them don’t have enough pens.”

“Due to the remap, they have all of these new election judges that don’t know their head from their toes, and it’s going to cost Barack Obama,” she said.

Things were no better in Avondale or Logan Square, said Larry Ligas, chairman of Logan Square Concerned Citizens. “I saw over 50 different precincts, and each one had the same problem — mass confusion. And then, when we’re calling the Board of Elections, either the site was down, was sluggish, or they were not even answering the phones.”

“We had voters come in with their cards stating they vote at a certain location. They triple-checked the books, and their names were not coming up. The redistricting was a total mess,” Ligas said.

Juliette Loiret-Bernal experienced a different kind of frustration. She showed up to vote at Beth Emet, an Evanston synagogue, where she asked the judges if they had any information for her two adult children. Both are college students in Canada who had requested absentee ballots but had yet to receive them.

An election judge found her son’s record, and told her: “‘Oh, yes, he voted early.”

When she told him that was impossible because he hadn’t received a ballot, he showed her a document stamped “early voter,” she said, and told her: “‘I’ve been married 47 years. I don’t make mistakes.’”

Another election judge later told her the man was misinformed, and her son had not voted.

Cook County Clerk David Orr, whose office oversees the election in suburban Cook County, said he expects voter turnout in Cook County to be less than the 73.5 percent of four years ago, but thinks it will still be high.

“It is unclear if the rain will make voter turnout dip below 70 percent,” he said. “It’s been a standard and normal election with very few problems.”

Bob Saar, executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission, was expecting turnout to keep pace with levels seen in recent general elections.

“Looking at this election, and going back four and eight years ago, four years ago and eight years ago we had a 77 percent turnout, and I don’t see any reason why we won’t repeat that,” Saar said shortly after noon Tuesday.

In Aurora, all polling places opened on time, according to Linda Fechner, executive director of the Aurora Election Commission.

“This being a very critical election, as every election is, we have a lot of poll watchers,” she said. The main calls the commission has been fielding are from residents wondering where their precincts are.

“It’s been a quick morning, but no major issues, I’m happy to report,” Fechner said. Everything is moving quickly and smoothly.”

Similarly, voting got off to a good start in Will County, said County Clerk Nancy Voots. Polling places opened on time, machines were operating properly.

Voots said she expects turnout to be heavy, but not as high as in 2008, thanks to the high number of people who chose to vote early.

Contributing: AP, Sun-Times Media Wire

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