Evanston’s two wards with the largest Black populations have half the voting places of the city’s other wards – because, according to the Cook County Clerk’s Office, its staff has not been able to find buildings accessible to people with disabilities.

While all the other wards in the city have four or more polling places, the Fifth and Eighth wards have just two apiece for their thousands of registered voters. 

Maria Canon and her son Joseph Canon walked to the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center to vote. Credit: Gina Castro

Neither city nor county officials saw the disparity as an issue or tried to address it until they were approached by the RoundTable.

“I want to emphasize that, certainly, we would like to have more polling places in these wards, if there’s suitable locations for fair polling places,” said Jonathan Williams, manager of Community Services at the Cook County Clerk’s Office. “The ideal would be every precinct in a ward would have a polling place.”

Evanston resident and founder of the Center for Common Ground Michael DeVaul was shocked to hear of the disparity in voting locations.

“I think Evanston should relook at voting proximity, how it votes and use the polling places as a way to increase access, not just access for those that are disabled,” DeVaul said. “It’s an and, not an or.”

His nonprofit works to educate and empower communities about voting. The Center for Common Ground is expanding to Evanston. Its website will be up in December or January, DeVaul said.

The RoundTable spoke to some voters about the disparity in polling places between the Fifth and Eighth wards and the other seven wards. Most weren’t surprised.

“What else is new?” said Eighth Ward resident Carol Johnson moments after casting her ballot on election night.

Mother and daughter Sydni Craig and Spencer Nabors were disappointed but not surprised. Eighth Ward resident Nabors said after casting her ballot on election night, “They don’t want Black people to vote. Systemic voter suppression is here even though this isn’t Georgia.” 

Eighth Ward Council Member Devon Reid, who had election duties as Evanston City Clerk from 2017 to 2021, said he did not want to assume the polling place disparity was created on purpose.

“I think that it’s certainly an issue when the portions of the city that have the largest minority populations have the fewest polling places,” Reid said. “I don’t want to assume this is intentional or that there was malice behind that. But nonetheless, the outcome needs to be addressed.”

Election oversight in Evanston is shared between the city clerk’s office and the office of the Cook County Clerk. Karen Yarbrough, a Democrat, is the first African American woman to hold the office. She has been county clerk since 2018 and was just reelected for a second four-year term in this November’s election. 

Who chooses polling places?

On election night, it was not immediately clear to the RoundTable which governmental agency – city or county – is responsible for keeping track of polling places and determining the criteria for how many places is enough.

The county sends a list of polling places to City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza before each election, Mendoza said. “They scout for buildings,” she said in reference to the county. “That’s their job.”

City officials were apparently unaware that the lack of buildings that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was the cause of the dearth of polling places in the two wards.

The RoundTable discovered the disparity in voting places on election night and tried to address it with city and county officials, but it was an extremely busy night. Therefore, the RoundTable accorded government officials time to sort out the news organization’s questions.

While much time passed, it did not bring much more clarity.

On election night, Mendoza, who discussed this via text with the RoundTable, said the number of polling places was determined by the number of registered voters.

Reid and Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, responded similarly when reached by phone election night. At the time, both said that voting statistics – either turnout or the number of registered voters – determined the number of polling places.

But Williams, from the county clerk’s office, said the number of registered voters in each ward actually determines the number of precincts – not polling places – within a ward. 

While the county said it aims to have a polling place in each precinct to ensure residents have equal access and opportunity to cast ballots, it does not always happen. Evanston wards with a polling place in each precinct are the First, Second and Ninth wards, according to county records.

The RoundTable – informed by the county’s response that a polling place per precinct was the standard but it was determined by access – reached out again to city officials.  

“If that’s the case, I’m going to have to find some more polling places for the Eighth Ward for the next election,” Reid said. “Because there are definitely available places that are ADA-compliant. I think it just takes a little bit of legwork.”

Burns said Fifth Ward residents haven’t told him that they have issues reaching the two polling locations, which are at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center at 1655 Foster St. and Jane R. Perlman Apartments at 1900 Sherman Ave.

But he said perhaps the southwest side of the ward could benefit from an additional polling location.

Olivene Garriques brought her two sons Mason, left, and Tyler with her as she voted on Election Day. Credit: Gina Castro

Mendoza said the information she had shared with the RoundTable came from a Cook County Clerk’s Office employee who was in Evanston on election night.

Later, by way of possible explanation, County Deputy Clerk Ed Michalowski said the county hired an additional 6,000 people for the election and those workers most likely wouldn’t know the correct information about polling places.

Mendoza said this recent election was only the second she has been involved with as city clerk. To her knowledge, she said, this election used the same number of polling places as before she was elected.

City vs. county

The city helps the county locate alternative polling places only when the county reaches out for assistance, Mendoza said.

In this past election, Mendoza said, she helped the county locate a substitute polling place for the Seventh Ward’s fifth precinct, at the Baha’i National Center, 1233 Central St.

Mendoza said she did not know that she could suggest additional polling places to the county. She said she plans to share information about ADA-compliant buildings in the Fifth and Eighth wards with the county. But she said the city doesn’t have a list of ADA-compliant buildings readily available.

“It’s a concern,” Mendoza said. “But I have no control over what buildings are ADA-compliant. We have to use what buildings are available. We know this is an issue in communities of color.”

The Cook County Clerk’s Office said it has an open door of communication with all city clerks in the county. It also offers training programs for new clerks, the office said. Its next training will be before the February and April elections.

“We haven’t had any complaints,” county Deputy Clerk Michalowski said in reference to the Fifth and Eighth Ward having fewer polling places. “We’ve had some discussion with … Evanston, the new clerk, and they’ve never brought up to us ever that there was an issue related to any of the precincts.”

Communication with the county during elections isn’t too in depth, said Mendoza. She said she communicates with three individuals from the county via email to sign forms.

Mendoza noted that there are more schools in the Sixth Ward, and those locations can easily be used as voting locations. But there aren’t as many in the Fifth and Eighth wards. There is a building being constructed at Chicago Avenue and Howard Street, she said, that she hopes can be a polling place once it’s complete.

Mendoza also said polling places need to offer more than just compliance with the ADA. They must also have Wi-Fi access and electrical outlets to support the voting equipment.

High rent cost could be another reason why there are fewer polling places in the Fifth and Eighth wards, Michalowski said. “The statute allows us to occupy schools and municipal buildings at no cost, so that’s our first choice,” Michalowski said.

But if those spaces aren’t available, the county has to turn to businesses, which can charge between $500 and $750, he said. For example, Union Station in Chicago charges the county $750 to use its space for several weeks of early voting, Michalowski said.

Spencer Nabors, left, and her mother Sydni Craig came out to vote in the Eighth Ward with their dog, Jackie Robinson. “I vote in every election,” Craig said. “People died for this.” Credit: Gina Castro

The county said it is launching an analysis to identify more polling locations in the Fifth and Eighth wards as a result of the RoundTable investigation.

But Michalowski said this issue is “not uncommon” and happens in other cities in Cook County.

“If you look at the township of Riverside,” he said, “there’s probably three polling places. Because, just the way it was laid out, there’s just a few buildings that could fit. But we can certainly look at the Fifth and Eighth wards to see if there’s a better method for us to reach the voters.”

Field staff from the county are coming to Evanston to find other ADA-compliant spaces in the Fifth and Eighth wards, Michalowski said. The county will also review election judge surveys to see if there were other issues. But he said no one from the city had contacted the county about these issues, aside from the RoundTable.

Unequal access to polls

The Fifth and Eighth wards face race-based economic disadvantages that date back to the city’s history of redlining, according to the city’s 2022 Evanston Project for the Local Assessment of Needs (EPLAN). 

The report found that the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. risk map from 1935, which set the foundation for redlining in the city, is behind many racial inequities seen in Evanston today.

The 2022 EPLAN shows the median household incomes of Evanston census tracts. The median household income in the census tract that roughly corresponds to the Fifth Ward is an estimated $44,458. In two census tracts in the wealthier Eighth Ward, the median household incomes were between $62,416 and $79,850, the 2022 project reported. Those numbers pale in comparison to the Sixth Ward, the whitest and wealthiest ward, as census tracts there show median incomes between $106,103 and $150,175. 

In 2017, the Eighth Ward had a polling place at 415 Howard St. that was ADA-compliant, Reid and the Cook County Clerk’s Office confirmed. But during the pandemic, the apartment management declined to participate. The county hasn’t been able to locate another ADA-compliant building in the Eighth Ward since.

“It was out of our hands,” Cook County Clerk’s Office Communications Director Frank Herrera said via email.

Though 415 Howard St. was a convenient polling place for residents who lived in that building, the location was far away for other Eighth Ward residents, Mendoza said. 

Most of the 25 polling places in the city aren’t shared between wards. A total of 14 polling places are used strictly by specific wards and one to two precincts within the wards. Only 11 of the polling places are shared between wards.

The First Ward has the fewest registered voters, 4,281. The Fifth Ward has 4,314 registered voters. The Eighth Ward has 5,521 registered voters. 

The Seventh Ward has 5,654 voters, the Ninth Ward has 5,716 voters and the Fourth Ward has 5,732 voters. The Second Ward and the Third Ward are each above 6,000 voters. The Sixth Ward is the only ward in the city with more than 7,000 voters.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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  1. This is such a non-story. First of all the claim is false that “Evanston wards with a polling place in each precinct are the First, Second and Ninth wards, according to county records.”

    I don’t know what “county records” Castro is looking at, but the link she provides tells a different story.

    In the Second Ward there is only ONE of five precincts with a polling place in the Ward, let alone the precinct. The other four precincts are served by polls outside the ward.

    Secondly, I can’t believe that the reporter fails to mention that there is only ONE early voting site in Evanston. And where is that? Fifth Ward.

    To imply that it is somehow hard to vote in Evanston and that we have some Jim Crow voting system here is just laughable. Early voting for the month prior to the election in the Fifth Ward, easy mail-in-voting, no voter-id laws, all make it very easy to vote in Evanston.

  2. Oooops! I forgot that the comment software has the horrid habit of scrunching an entire carefully crafted message into a single monster paragraph. Sorry, readers. My post in short was, Bravo, and here are two tips for showing future reports. I will email a proper doc to Suzy.

  3. Bravo! This is an example of how responsible community journalism can push the authorities to do right, and sometimes even without friction(:-).
    Two suggestions for the follow-up — or for other reports that could use these tips. You have relatively unlimited space online, unlike the print work that first brought me to Evanston in 1969.
    1. Map, legible on laptop or desktop screen, scrollable on phones, to let people see the boundaries and distances involved. One of my mentors called this style a “locator-plus.”
    2. Comparison data in tabular form right in the column of text. It might add a couple of lines (but who cares, online?), and make the disparities more readily visible (a major advantage over audio-video!). Use line-return rather than paragraph-return to avoid undue white space.
    Hasty example follows, with n for numbers I don’t have, and no option to get a uniform-width font. One idea is to get short enough lines that they are likely to remain un-wrapped even on smallish phones. Young digital-natives can handle the how-to.
    Here are the registration figures from public records:
    Ward, precincts, polls, voters
    1st, n, n, 4,281
    2d, n, n, 6,nnn
    3rd, n, n, 6,nnn
    4th, n, n, 5,732
    5th, n, n, 4,314
    7th, n, n, 7,nnn
    8th, n, n, 5,521
    9th, n, n, 5,716
    Alternatively, you could rank them by voter count and/or visually flag the largest, smallest, etc. Or even show # of voters per poll. Etc.
    Keep at it.

  4. Ward 8, Precinct 4 used to have its polling place at Chute Middle School. Another precinct also used that site. However, it was closed maybe 5 years ago and we were sent to Oakton Elementary School. Austin Street has residential parking only so you’re violating parking restrictions if you park on it. There’s a small parking area off Ridge for maybe 3 vehicles. We voted there once or twice until early voting came in. Now we vote at the Civic Center prior to Election Day.

  5. Great, in-depth story on Evanston’s 5th and 8th voting districts. Thankful for Evanston Roundtable to discover and address these inequities and others!

  6. This is a great article Gina and a great catch. It just manifests the oversights and systematic racist behavior that we have to remain vigilant in unraveling and removing. Thanks to you and the Roundtable for this discovery. This type of factual reporting is enlightening and refreshing, regardless of the source reporting. The information is depressing but the reporting is worthy.

  7. It’s not so great in the 1st ward either. I voted at the Evanston library and there was only one voting machine. Long waits to use it or you had to use paper.