Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=209431
Story Retrieval Date: 3/27/2015 8:47:38 PM CST
When the president casts his early ballot in Chicago Thursday, he’ll be joining the rapidly growing ranks of Chicagoans who have already taken to the polls.
Designed to expand voters’ access to the ballot box, early voting is a relatively recent phenomenon, noted Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University. The practice, adopted only a couple decades ago, has been gathering significant momentum over the past few election cycles.
“The idea is that turnouts were so low they would lengthen the time [frame for voting],” Green explained. “It gives people who work during the day a chance to vote other than Election Day.”
The trend is not without controversy, however. Battles over the practice have broken out in a number of key states, particularly Ohio and Florida, which both candidates consider large electoral prizes.
Proponents say the greater flexibility that early voting provides makes it easier for lower-income people and minorities, who often have a harder time leaving work on a weekday than more affluent voters, to cast their vote. That’s particularly true in states, including Illinois, that allow weekend voting.
Critics allege that extended voting hours could place an undue burden on election workers, and increases the risk of election fraud.
Despite the controversy, the surge in early voting is causing a seismic shift in how elections are run, said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The whole process of early voting has changed running for office,” Simpson said. “It is changing the way elections are conducted.”
Now, instead of making large TV-ad buys in the final weeks before Election Day, campaigns feel forced to start making the expenditures a month before, Simpson said.
That’s not the only impact on longstanding campaign techniques. Costly get-out-the-vote efforts, where campaigns urge their core supporters to turn out and vote, now start earlier. That puts extra pressure on campaign coffers. The thing is, said Simpson, “no one knows how to do it effectively.”
Early voting, which opened Monday in Chicago, has already seen a much higher front-end turnout this year than in the 2008 general election, according to Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
“We broke a record no matter how you measure it,” he said. “Early voting is a reflection of how many people have made up their mind.”
Four years ago, 12,200 people showed up to vote on the first day of early voting; this year 15,700 turned to cast their ballot on the first day.
The jump in voters isn’t surprising, Allen said, given the small number of still on the fence.
Indeed, opinion polls suggest most voters have already made their choice. According to polling averages by Real Clear Politics, President Barack Obama’s share of likely voters stands at 47.2 percent, while Republican challenger Mitt Romney maintains a 47.8 percent average. That leaves just 5 percent of voters who have yet to settle on a candidate.
This time around, more voters have a sense of familiarity about the early voting procedure. “Many voters came into the election using early voting in the last five or six years,” Allen said. “We certainly made sure voters were informed.”
For campaigns that understand the system, more early voters means more votes.
"If Richard J. Daley had early voting, the polling places would be [empty] on Election Day," said Green, the Roosevelt professor.