Bean pins hopes on absentee votes in Lake, McHenry

Melissa Bean has held back from conceding the 8th Congressional District for nearly two weeks, and now she's hoping that absentee voters in Lake and McHenry counties which both went heavily for Republican Joe Walsh on Election Night will save her seat and her congressional career.

The number of uncounted ballots makes it statistically possible for Bean, the Democrat who upset longtime Republican Congressman Phil Crane in 2004, to overcome her current 347-vote deficit.

But experts say Bean's chances of finding help among collar-county absentee voters is slim.

“She's hoping against hope,” Roosevelt University political science professor Paul Green said. “She is politically sailing against the wind.”

On Friday, Bean pointed out that in Cook County's nearly daily count of incoming absentee ballots after Election Day, she narrowed Walsh's lead each time.

But Bean had already won Cook County among voters who went to the polls on Nov. 2. Nevertheless, she sees the trend among Cook's absentee voters as one that might continue when Lake and McHenry counties' absentee ballots are counted Tuesday.

Walsh's camp as well as political analysts say there's not much evidence to support such a belief.

“I don't understand why geography wouldn't trump timing,” said Nick Provenzano, Walsh's campaign manager.

Green said there normally wouldn't be a reason to expect absentee voters to create a trend different from Election Day voters, unless a campaign has targeted a particular population such as seniors more likely to vote absentee.

Northern Illinois University political science professor Matt Streb pointed out that Illinois just changed from restrictive absentee voting which requires an excuse to not vote on Election Day to a system that allows anyone to vote early.

Under the previous system, absentee ballots tended to lean Republican as a large percentage of business travelers and military people were among such voters, Streb said.

With the new system, absentee ballots should more closely resemble those of the general population, he added. But one question is whether old behavior patterns still endured through this first election under the new system.

The basic premise of loosening up the absentee voting system is to bring in new voters who wouldn't have cast ballots at all otherwise.

But in Illinois, that doesn't seem to have happened, Streb said. Evidence shows that the same number of voters simply cast ballots at the most convenient time for them.

The issue of voter intent tends to be heavily debated when absentee ballots get involved in the outcome of a race because voters are more likely to make errors when they vote absentee, Streb said. A common mistake is circling a candidate's name rather than filling in the oval next to it as they should.

Ideally, the handling of such dilemmas would be covered by precise legal language before they occur. But such cases inevitably create debate whether there are pre-existing procedures or not, Streb said. It's always the candidate who's behind that prefers a more liberal definition of voter intent, he added.

As of Friday afternoon, Bean estimated there are about 1,500 uncounted ballots that could still be in play.

Provenzano agreed 1,500 is an adequate ballpark figure, given a little wiggle room for absentee ballots not yet received and unlikely to.

As of Friday afternoon, Cook County had received 209 ballots deemed valid but still uncounted, clerk's office spokeswoman Courtney Greve said.

These included 24 ballots initially rejected but then accepted after a second review observed by members of both campaigns. There were also 11 new ballots with valid postmarks or signatures and 174 PDF ballots from overseas/military voters that had been converted to a new format capable of being counted.

Lake County has received 601 absentee ballots that are valid and still uncounted and 472 provisional ballots whose validity has not yet been determined.

McHenry County has received only 24 valid absentee ballots. Though the exact number of provisional ballots wasn't known Friday, county Clerk Katherine Schultz estimated it to be around half a dozen.

Joe Walsh