Vote early. Vote Often. It appears we took at least the first part of that to heart this election. Clout Street is reporting that nearly nearly half a million people have cast ballots in early voting in Chicago and Cook County according to totals released today.
Long lines on Thursday forced election officials to extend the 10 p.m. deadline to midnight as the 18-day Early Voting program for the 2008 Primary Election came to an end.
On the final day of Early Voting, Chicago set a new single-day record with more than 33,800 ballots cast, the eighth time in this election that the city set a new single-day record.
The state nearly quadrupled its former early voting record, reaching a high of 821,000 in the first general election where voting before Election Day was an option.
Tracy Kelley told her boss that she stepped out to vote, but she didn't know she'd be gone from work for two hours.
Like many, Kelley thought it would be convenient to vote before Election Day, but early voting sites throughout Illinois on Thursday resembled the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping rush as people stood in long lines to cast ballots.
Despite the lines, Kelley, 39, waited along with hundreds of others in the maze-like hallways of the basement below city elections offices.
"I want Chicago's numbers to be high," she said. "It's important to show we took this seriously even though we know the state is going to (Barack) Obama."
There are about 7.7 million registered voters in Illinois. About 220,000 people cast ballots before Election Day in the February primaries, but this is the first time residents will have a chance to vote early in a presidential general election.
Fired up about Barack Obama and fearing long lines on Election Day, black voters are turning out in droves in the south suburbs to cast their ballots early this year, the Southtown Star reported.
In many of the 30 other states that have the option, residents have taken years to become familiar with early voting and use it in large numbers, said Brian Gaines, a political science associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Intense voter mobilization efforts this year seem to have pushed Illinois past that stage, he said. The state implemented early voting just three years ago.
"All bets are off," Gaines said. Illinois is "skipping the early learning curve," he said.
And now that Illinoisans' interest in early voting has been piqued, it will probably stay relatively high for years to come, Gaines said.
The popularity of early voting has already obliterated election officials' expectations.
In Madison County near St. Louis, County Clerk Mark Von Nida forecast some 20,000 of the county's 178,000 registered voters would come seeking early ballots at the county's 15 polling sites. As of Thursday morning, that number ballooned to more than 32,000 -- and mounting.
"Not only did we hit 30,000 yesterday, but we blew right on past it," he said.
Roughly 4,000 of those early votes came Wednesday, in one day eclipsing the number of such ballots cast during the entire primary election there months earlier.
That last-minute demand didn't come without hassles. At polling places in Highland and Godfrey, he said, paper used as backup to some electronic machines was scarce, forcing many still in line at the closing time of those sites to be asked to come back the next day -- a luxury Von Nida knows he won't have next Tuesday.
"With Election Day, there's no tomorrow. With early voting, there's always tomorrow," he said. "Basically what we're assuming on Election Day is that early voting didn't even take place; that way, you don't get caught short. You can't afford to have any problems at all on Election Day."
Across the state in Champaign County, about 40 people waited in line to vote inside the county administration building in Urbana. Most stood silently in the overly warm hall just outside the county clerk's office, apparently patient in the face of what for most was a 90-minute wait.
"I can't believe how many people are here, quite honestly," said 32-year-old grad student Christopher Lee, who said he had just cast a vote for independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
Brendesha Tynes, a 37-year-old who said she always casts ballots in presidential elections, had never voted early before waiting an hour and a half in line Thursday.
"I got the opportunity for the first time to vote for a black president," said Tynes, a University of Illinois professor who is black.
Tynes said she'll be out of town on Election Day, helping Obama campaigners in Indianapolis.
Officials hoped the early turnout would make for an easier time on Tuesday, but acknowledged that many of the state's remaining 6.9 million registered voters could still clog the polls.
"We will have lines," said Langdon Neal, chairman of the Chicago Board of Elections. "If you're in line at 7 p.m., you will be able to vote."
In-person Absentee Voting Begins Friday
Voters who were unable to participate in Early Voting and can provide a valid excuse under the law why they cannot make it to their polling place on Election Day may vote in-person absentee starting Friday. [Read More...]