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Brown: Downstate voters get early start on election

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Most of you have probably figured out by now that we have a primary election coming up in Illinois in just five weeks on March 15.

But I’ll bet there aren’t many of you who realize that the voting has already started.

As of Monday afternoon, 36 eager voters had already cast their ballots in Will County. Another 35 had voted in Sangamon County, where Springfield is the county seat.

In Bloomington, some 40 voters have been to the polls, another 30 in surrounding McLean County. In Winnebago County, about 20 ballots have been cast, although none of them from the county seat of Rockford.

And here in Chicago?

None.

Same for suburban Cook County. Also in DuPage and Lake.

What gives?

Under a new law that took effect this year, election jurisdictions were instructed to begin early voting in their central offices 40 days before the primary. That was Feb. 4. And most did.

OPINION

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But for any number of reasons, this 40-day early voting start has proved way too early for most of the state’s largest election concerns, who have not had sufficient time to prepare and test their ballots.

As a result, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, Cook County Clerk and DuPage County Election Commission all say they don’t expect to have their ballots ready for voting before Feb. 17.

Lake County Clerk Carla Wyckoff said she hopes to be open for voting by this Thursday. Rockford, which has its own separate election authority like Chicago and Bloomington, is looking at Feb. 15.

I’m not trying to suggest this is any scandal.

Everybody will still have plenty of opportunity to vote. Given the numbers of voters that have turned out so far in these Downstate counties, it’s not as if I foresee one candidate getting advantage over another.

But this is a statewide election, and if I may be so bold, it only stands to reason that a statewide election should adhere to a uniform set of dates on when the voting begins and when it ends — before we do cause a scandal.

Illinois, after all, is a state with obvious regional splits in its politics, and it doesn’t make sense to give one region two weeks longer than another for its voters to get to the polls.

And if 40 days before an election doesn’t give the largest election agencies enough time to get ready, then that’s too early for the state as a whole.

“No harm, no foul,” is how Cook County Clerk David Orr sees the different voting dates, which he attributes to an unintended “glitch” in the new voting law.

He says he doesn’t want to divert attention from the fact that what most people have come to think of as early voting, when polling places are opened in village halls around the county and in every Chicago ward, will begin as in the past on Feb. 29 — 15 days prior to Election Day.

Although he agrees the glitch should be corrected and the start of voting made uniform, Orr argues I will just be confusing people by writing this story. So don’t be confused.

That doesn’t change the fact that people around the state have been voting since Thursday while voters here have to wait another nine days.

The verdict is in on early voting. People love it for the convenience. And it’s a great relief to these election agencies by cutting down on the number of voters going to the polls on Election Day.

I like it, too, although I always caution people not to get in any big hurry because a lot can change in the last month before an election.

That’s especially true in a presidential primary year. Example: Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee will be on the Illinois ballot for president on the Republican side this year even though both have dropped out of the race. Others will undoubtedly follow suit before the campaign makes it to Illinois.

Election officials with whom I spoke Monday said most of those turning out early seem to be interested in the presidential contest.

Apparently not everybody is eager to vote.

Over in McHenry County, Clerk Mary McClellan said her staff hustled to meet the Thursday deadline.

Yet as of Monday, nobody had voted.

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