Article III of the Illinois Constitution pledges that all elections shall be free and equal, and that laws governing voter registration and conduct of elections shall be general and uniform.

However, it’s hard for me to fathom that what I experienced as an election judge in the 24th Ward on Tuesday was free or equal. It’s even harder for me to believe that my experience was similar to the experiences of North Side neighborhoods with more wealth and resources.

For the November 8 general election, I worked as an election judge for the first time, and I did so in my neighborhood at the William Penn High School polling location. I was enthusiastic as four seniors, a teenager, our middle-aged election coordinator and I finished setting up the voter center with one minute to spare before voting began at 6 a.m. 

From the moment the polls opened, the mostly Black voters filed in consistently. The first few voters who braved our single digital voting booth were disappointed to find their physical ballots had printed out completely black, obscuring their choices. As our election coordinator fiddled with the printer, more small fires kindled. 

My fellow poll workers and I struggled to juggle these fires with new voters at the door every few minutes.

For those who opted for paper ballots, the sharpies provided by the Chicago Board of Election bled through them. Frustrated, many of those voters were forced to redo their ballot two and three times. Voters were bewildered as we handed them sharpies and suggested they fill in the spaces as gently as possible to avoid bleeding through them. Despite the absurdity of completing a ballot with the same sharpie, over and over again, voters kept trying because they wanted to make sure their vote was counted. 

The ballot scanner jammed at least three times before 12 p.m. We ran out of the pitiful amount of privacy sleeves —those cardboard covers that conceal choices—for paper ballots constantly. Many voters who initially opted for a digital ballot returned to ask for a paper ballot as the line for our lone digital booth swelled. Voters frantically made calls after arriving, shepherding their mothers, cousins and friends to the entrance those who could not find it due to inadequate signage. Most importantly, voters albeit frustrated and disappointed, stayed and worked with us to figure out how to cast their ballots. 

And these were the least serious of our mishaps. 

In May, the City Council approved a remapping of Chicago wards. The new map created 16 wards with majority Black voters and changed the voting precinct information for many of the voters in those wards. North Lawndale is one of those wards. 

By the afternoon, many voters, unaware of their updated voting precinct information, were arriving at our location after already going to one or two other polling locations. These voters were in the correct ward, but had not found their specific precinct polling location. 

They gave me a litany of churches, schools and community centers they had traveled to already. Most disconcerting to me was that the polling staffers at many of those locations—and a few folks at the polling location I was working at—had not been equipped to search names in e-poll books and definitively inform voters of their new polling location. 

One North Lawndale resident lamented that she had been walking to vote in the basement of a North Lawndale church for 14 years and now had to ride the bus to find her new voting precinct polling location. She was disappointed to discover that she had not, in fact, found the correct precinct for her address. 

Most voters left in a hurry to make it to their precinct and vote after I gave them the address. However, many frustrated voters, running late to appointments and to pick up children, settled for provisional ballots, which are records of ballots that are cast by voters whose eligibility to vote must be resolved before the vote can count.

Now before you chalk all of this up to disorganization and incompetence of voting staff, or a lack of awareness and effort on behalf of voters, consider what life in North Lawndale is actually like. 

According to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) report from July, 41 percent of North Lawndale residents have no vehicle available. So yes, two or three tries to vote are too many for someone on foot or reliant on public transportation. 

While almost 40 percent of North Lawndale’s population is between the ages of 20 and 49, 44 percent of North Lawndale residents are making $25,000 annually. Many can’t afford child care or a break from a gig to go vote. Therefore, the responsibility falls disproportionately on our seniors. 

A free and equal election for Black and brown voters in poor neighborhoods requires more creativity and resources from Chicago and its election board. Breaking up poll worker shifts into morning and afternoon shifts, and providing vouchers for childcare and transportation to the polls are just a few examples. 

Poll workers in North Lawndale and other similar neighborhoods need an in-person election training option, rather than the strictly virtual, monotonous modules they offer as well — which aren’t mandatory. 

Also, door knocking on Election Day to provide the correct polling location information, and signage on previous locations that point to the new ones, might’ve saved many voters multiple trips. 

Equity, rather than equality, should be the goal for election conduct in Chicago. Black voters are scaling mountains of inconvenience and confusion to vote and it doesn’t have to be this way. If we’re going to achieve equity in the election process, Black and brown wards need more support from the city to ensure polling staff is equipped to work the polls and that voters can cast their vote in the upcoming municipal elections.

is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She recently covered housing as a 2020 City Bureau fellow.