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Early line sees light turnout for Tuesday's primary
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

It was standing room only last week at the Wheeling Township offices in Arlington Heights where Julie Ward of Arlington Heights and Richard Szparkowski of Mount Prospect cast their early votes.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/1/2010 12:01 AM

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Veteran precinct captain Bill Weaver expected more interest this campaign season from the 369 family homes he oversees in Schaumburg Township.

But one of the only calls he received on this primary was from a voter apparently confused between Republican governor candidate Kirk Dillard and Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk.

"They were very interested two years ago," Weaver says of the presidential election, "but so far it has seemed light."

If early voting results are a prediction, attention to the primary battles that range from governor and senator to local judges will be tepid compared to the fervor of the presidential campaigns in 2008.

To be sure, early voting was up this year across the suburbs, by a significant percentage in many cases, compared to the March primary of 2006. But that is expected because it was also the first primary to feature early voting.

And that increase is not expected to translate into a big jump in primary votes cast on Election Day, county clerks say. Certainly partly to blame is the very early date of this year's primary, coming off the holidays and in the most frigid period of Chicago's notorious weather.

Tuesday is already expected to be cold, with a possibility of light snow.

"I don't like it," said Cook County Clerk David Orr of the moved-up primary date. "I think that is a big disincentive. It makes it very hard for the voters. It makes it hard for the media and above all it is incumbent protection. There is actually no reason not to make it later."

State lawmakers moved the primary up to Feb. 2 from late March to gain attention in the presidential primaries. Democrats, who control the governor's mansion and state Legislature, wanted to help native Sen. Barack Obama's bid.

But now Orr said the date should be moved back to March or later, even if just for the midterm primaries. Such proposals went nowhere in the state Legislature last year.

Meanwhile, clerks across the suburbs have been struggling to draw voters to the polls and market early voting in the face of apparent dismal interest.

"If anyone could figure out what it takes to get voters to the polls, they could wrap it up and sell it," says McHenry County Clerk Katherine Schultz. "This looks very poor."

McHenry County saw a 27 percent turnout of registered voters for the 2006 primary, but Schultz said she believes turnout may come in this year at less than 20 percent.

So far, 2,411 voted early in the county compared to 1,746 in 2006.

In neighboring Lake County, home to three contentious congressional primaries, Clerk Willard Helander reports 12,157 early votes. That is up from 2006's 5,006 early votes.

Helander said she is hoping for a 30 percent turnout in her county compared to a 22 percent turnout in 2006, but the current totals are not overly encouraging.

"We can't really gauge," she said of early voting figures. "It could be voters are undecided with so many candidates."

DuPage County had about 8,300 early votes cast in the 2006 primary. This year, despite being home to three of the Republican candidates for governor and a divisive county board contest, that number rose to only 10,205.

However, Kane County saw a more dramatic increase in early voting this election. The county has been opening polls at nontraditional but convenient locations, such as grocery stores.

Clerk John Cunningham said about 7,000 early votes were cast this year compared to about 2,800 in 2006.

Still, Cunningham isn't seeing much fire to increase the usual primary turnout.

"There doesn't seem to be much of a pulse," he said. "There is no Ronald Reagan or Obama running."

Cook County more than doubled its early voting turnout compared to the last midterm primary. In 2006, nearly 15,609 voters hit the polls early. This year 34,839 voted between Jan. 11 and Thursday.

"I think early voting doubled mostly because people are more familiar with it," Orr said. "But the bottom line is that no matter what we try, we tend to get low turnout in these primaries."

Orr also blames Illinois' requirement that voters pick a party primary to vote in. Voters can't vote in the Republican primary for governor and then the Democratic primary for Senate. It is all one party or nothing. Nonpartisan ballots are also available, but they only include local referendums.

"They don't like that," Orr says. "People don't want to have to be labeled."