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Article posted: 11/11/2012 1:09 AM

Why 1 in 4 chose to vote before Election Day

By Harry Hitzeman

Nearly one in four people in the suburbs who voted in Tuesday's election went to a designated polling place in person and voted early, according to suburban election officials.

Election experts say this percentage will only grow as early voting, which began in Texas in the 1980s but did not debut in Illinois until 2006, continues to gain traction.

"My guess is that it will grow to 40 (percent). It may even get to 50 (percent) at some point," said Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center, a Houston-based nonprofit organization of election officials and professionals from across the country.

Lewis said early voting began in Texas in the 1980s, and the state usually averages 35 percent to 40 percent in-person early voting in each election.

"Once (voters) make up their mind, they've made up their mind, and they're going to go ahead and vote," Lewis said. "There are some counties in Florida where 60 (percent) to 65 percent of the people voted before the election."

In the suburbs, Kane County was highest among Chicago's collar counties with 31.9 percent, or nearly one in three people, voting in person ahead of Election Day. Overall, 24.1 percent of ballots cast in Chicago and five counties were from early voting, according to data from area clerks' offices.

"It's caught on, and I think it's quite successful. There's absolutely no reason a person can't vote now," Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham said. "A lot of people in our county are commuters. They want to make sure if something happens, they don't have to choose between working and voting."

Lake County was second among suburban counties with 27.2 percent of voters casting ballots early.

"Early voting has been very popular with voters in Lake County all along," said Lake County Clerk Willard Helander, who noted that some voters showed up at early voting places a week in advance because they didn't know the early voting period was shortened.

Early voting does have its drawbacks. For example, some people who voted early in the March 2008 Republican primary were disappointed that some of the candidates had dropped out of the race before the actual primary was held in Illinois. In other cases, a last-minute revelation about a candidate or a scandal that erupts in October could leave some voters feeling a type of buyer's remorse.

"I think it's a balancing act. When early voting first started, we cautioned people," Helander said. "If you have any tiny bit of indecision, you might not want to vote early. If you vote early and information comes later, it makes a difference."

Overall tallies of in-person early voting were down from 2008, when Illinois voters had an 18-day period before the election to cast a ballot. Voter enthusiasm for then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama also was at an all-time high.

This month, early voting in Illinois was shortened to 13 days, but people were allowed to cast ballots closer to Tuesday's election.

Chicago Election Board spokesman Jim Allen said 243,108 early votes were cast in Chicago, which fell short of the 260,000-plus from 2008.

"If we had five more days, I guarantee we would have clobbered that number," Allen said. "Early voting is always a function of how many people have their minds made up. This year, we had very, very few undecided voters. This came as no surprise to us. The first day we opened the doors, we were hammered with traffic."

Matt Streb, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, said early voting is a trend that will continue across the county.

"Early voting is all the rage. What you're seeing is states that are making it easier to vote early," Streb said. "Why do people do it? It's mainly for convenience. The people who are voting (early) are usually the most partisan, the people who have made up their minds."

Streb shared Helander's concern that people may vote early and have their minds changed by a candidate's gaffe or new development in the race.

The first day of early voting in Illinois was Oct. 22, the same night that President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney had their last of three debates.

"Early voting, in a sense, is like having my students evaluate my course halfway through the first class," Streb said.

Despite the growing popularity of early voting, studies have shown that it has not increased actual voter turnout, Streb and Lewis said.

Streb said that no matter how convenient, you can't make a person vote, and some people are either apathetic or disenchanted with the entire process.

"That's right," agreed Lewis, of The Election Center. "While you have the freedom to vote, you also have the freedom not to vote."

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