State voter registration breaks record, pols push early voting

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People vote at a public library in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois as early voting polling places open on October 24, 2016. File Photo. / AFP PHOTO / Nova SAFONOVA SAFO/AFP/Getty Images

No matter who wins on Nov. 8, this election will likely make history in Illinois.

The state’s voter registration is breaking records during a contentious presidential election year — with the increased availability of early voting showing Election Day is no longer the only target for candidates.

In Chicago alone, 17,493 voters had already cast ballots as of about 5:30 p.m. Monday, on the first day of expanded early voting. That beats a city record of 15,000 early voters on Day One in 2012, according to Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen. Another 22,000 voters have already voted early — as Chicago voters were able to vote at a “super site” in the Loop beginning on Sept. 29. That marks the earliest early voting had begun before an election in Illinois.

“We’ve never seen early voting 40 days before the election,” Allen said. “In 2008, we started 22 days before and in 2002, we started 15 days before.”

Illinois also had more than 7.9 million active registered voters as of Monday — beating the state’s previous high total of 7.8 million registered voters in the 2008 election during Barack Obama’s first presidential election, according to Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Jim Tenuto, who said he analyzed records all the way back to 1970.

State files analyzed by the Chicago Sun-Times show the Illinois record holds until at least 1960, the earliest statewide voter registration figures available.

In Chicago, there are currently about 1.5 million active registered voters. Not quite the records set in 1948 and 1952, when 2.3 million registered to vote, according to Allen.

In Cook County, more than 5,500 voters have already utilized early voting. Another 9,482 have already sent in mail ballots – with 79,119 total requested this year.

In DuPage County, which typically leans Republican, 9,272 ballots have been mailed in, with just three voters using early voting. In Lake County, which also has a conservative tilt, 1,619 have early voted, with 10,742 mail in ballots already received of 31,976 requested.

The large numbers of early voters meant a more aggressive campaign push for candidates in Illinois — with TV ads running earlier than usual, and mailers also flooding mailboxes earlier than in previous election years.

Early voting began in Illinois in 2006, and it started as a way to deal with declining voter turnout on Election Day. But since then, it’s been a source of contention among Democrats and Republicans, with Democrats favoring its expansion and some Republicans balking.

In Chicago, early votes in the March primary ran about 90 percent Democrat to 10 percent Republican. In the suburbs of Cook County, it ran 72 percent Democrat to 29 percent Republican.

Illinois House Republicans — who are hoping to win over seats in the Illinois General Assembly to shift a balance of power – started their TV spending early in targeted races. They began airing ads for state Rep. Michael McAuliffe, R-Chicago, in early August.

“We are working hard to turn out voters across the state with a strong focus on early voting and absentee ballots,” Illinois Republican Party spokesman Steven Yaffe said of the push for early votes. “Voters are fed up with [Illinois House Speaker] Mike Madigan’s three decades of power and are demanding change, and we are seeing that at the grassroots level.”

Steve Brown, spokesman for Madigan, also chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, said early voting efforts are a “very good thing,” giving voters a chance to vote amidst hectic life and work schedules.

Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who’s facing a tough re-election against Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, is switching the campaign focus to early and mail voting.

“Our grass roots team has made over 1.7 million phone calls, knocked on over 250,00 doors and we are now mobilizing all those voter contacts for vote by mail and early voting,” Kirk campaign spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said on Monday.

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