Early voting turns out record numbers

By Adel Johnson

For the first time in a presidential election, the Illinois state government allowed early voting, drawing thousands of people to the polls in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Jim Allen of the Illinois State Board of Elections said the idea was to increase the amount of people who voted, and who could vote due to the larger amount of people interested in this election.

The Illinois General Assembly approved the law after the 2004 election. The early voting law allows any registered voter with a valid, government-issued photo ID to cast their ballot before Election Day at a designated early voting center without having to give a reason as to their inability to vote on Nov. 4. Voters were able to cast their ballots from Oct. 7 to Oct. 30.

It also creates a longer registration period for voters; voters could register to vote or change their address until Oct. 21 if they still wanted to vote on Election Day.

The law has facilitated a larger voter turnout so far this year than in the last election. Allen said about 83,000 people have registered statewide in the first week of early voting.

About 697,000 people in Cook County voted by the time the early voting period ended on Thursday, Allen said.

“Everyone who’s voting apparently has their mind made up,” he said.

Stephanie Gorum, who voted early at the Access Living building, 115 W. Chicago Ave., said she voted early to avoid the crowds on Election Day.

She said when she voted in the last election, she stood in line for hours. She figured the polls on Election Day this year would be even more crowded than they were in the last election because this time seems so much more important.

“I didn’t want to wait until the 4th,” Gorum said. “I wanted to get it over with.”

Gorum said she thinks it gives people who wouldn’t be able to vote otherwise a chance to have their voice heard. She said it helped senior citizens or people with kids who didn’t think they could take the time off on Election Day, and people who don’t want to go to the trouble of having to send in an absentee ballot.

Early voting, either requiring a reason or not, has been enacted in 34 other states including Florida and Ohio for previous elections, making it easier for voters to cast their ballot, Allen said. Many have been worried about registering in time or problems on Election Day preventing them from casting their ballots, so the state decided to attempt to solve this problem.

Allen said more people took advantage of the grace period and registered to vote in this election than in past elections. He credits this surge in registered voters to young people registering when they turn 18, as well as increased voter interest.

Michael Mezey, a DePaul University political science professor, said he thinks the importance of this election and the amount of people interested had a major effect on the decision to allow early voting.

“People are definitely more invested in the election this year,” Mezey said. “This is probably the most important election in our generation, if not in our country’s history.”

Mezey said the United States hasn’t been in worse shape than it is now since the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. He said the country needs something similar to the New Deal implemented by the Roosevelt Administration to turn it back around, and Americans know this.

Not only does the state of affairs in the United States matter greatly this year, Mezey said, but it also marks the first presidential election where two of the candidates for the Democratic Party are a man of mixed race and a woman. Further history was made when Sen. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain chose Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

All these factors, combined with the growing number of people who don’t vote at all in elections, helped solidify the decision to allow early voting, Allen said.

He said that although record numbers of people have been voting early, the State Board of Elections does not expect the number of votes cast on Election Day to decrease. The early law has made voting more convenient not only for those who wouldn’t have voted otherwise, but also for those who already know who they want to vote for, Mezey said.

“People are also aware of the higher voter turnout and want to make sure they get a chance to vote,” he said.