Early Voting Numbers Strong in Evanston

I went to vote early at the Civic Center yesterday. I didn't. Not because I had a change of heart -- because there were too many voters. What a lovely sight!

At approximately 5:00 pm, the closing hour for the last day of early voting, a line of at least 60 voters snaked out of the polling place room, down the hall, and around the corner into the main hallway of the Civic Center's first floor, blocking the photocopy machine. City Clerk Rodney Greene had to come out and announce that a lady in a purple coat would be the last allowed in. At that point the wait was "at least" 45 minutes, officials said. I suggested they have a sign like at Disneyworld -- "X minutes from this point." 

Still, most people looked determined to stick it out. And, judging from the totals announced by the County Clerk, most did, not just in Evanston but all around the county.

Over 3,500 people voted at the Evanston Civic Center in the last two weeks. While this is down considerably from the huge numbers in the 2008 presidential election, it represents more than a 100% increase from the last non-presidential general election in 2006, when 1,753 voted here.

While anyone in suburban Cook County, not just Evanstonians, could vote at the Civic Center, and it's risky to judge from appearances, it looked like a representative sample of Evanston's population. The Evanston numbers also seem typical of around the county, where, overall, early voting had more than doubled. Clerk David Orr says that absentee voting is also up.

It's hard to read what this all means. It could simply mean that every election, voters are getting a little more comfortable with the idea of early voting. But it could also mean that enthusiasm, at least in the final week, is not nearly as low as pollsters and pundits have been saying about this election. Certainly in Illinois no one can say, "They're all alike" or "It makes no difference" this cycle, because there are very distinct differences in candidates' positions on a wide variety of issues, and possibly as voters are looking more closely at these differences, they realize their vote does matter.

There's little likelihood turnout will come near 2008. Still it could be as much as 15% higher or more from the totals in 2006, when Rod Blagojevich opened a large early lead over Judy Baar-Topinka, and there was no U.S. Senate contest at stake, and, locally, Jan Schakowsky had much weaker opposition.

What would such a boost mean? In Cook County in general, and in Evanston in particular, this would be good news for Democrats. Suburban Cook County split 2:1 Democratic in 2008. A 15% increase would mean an additional 100,000 voters. Even if the Democrat-Republican split fell to only 60/40 in 2010, the increased turnout would produce an additional 16,000 votes for Democrats just from suburban Cook. If the increase was due to more participation by younger, more diverse "Obama voters," the impact could be even larger.

In 2006, Evanston voters disgusted with Blagojevich but unable to vote for a Republican gave Green candidate Whitney over 18% of the township vote for governor, a safe protest vote in an election where Blagojevich was seen as certain to win anyway. It's unlikely that savvy Evanston voters would do the same in a close election. Votes for the third-party and "independent" candidates might not top 10% combined this time around.

Evanston is not 100% Democratic but is heavily so. Assuming a 3:1 split, Dem-GOP, of all the Evanston voters who don't vote the Green, Libertarian, or Pawnshop ticket -- not unreasonable in a town that carried well over 80% for Obama -- and a modest 15% uptick in turnout, that would translate into a 12,400-vote "bump" for the Democrats just from Evanston alone, or a margin equalling everyone who voted in all of downstate Jefferson County in 2006. Such a bump would be an increase of more than 3,000 from the 2006 margin, and would mean that Evanston, alone, would eclipse the 2006 Republican margin of McHenry and Kendall Counties combined.

Politics, of course, is not a spectator sport, and in my ideal of citizenship, everyone forgets about all the polls and prognosticating and instead gets involved as a participant. I am posting this in hopes that it will reinforce that several important races on Tuesday hang in the balance, with the outcome far from certain, and in all likelihood hinging on turnout. My fingers are secretly crossed that all that early voting represents thousands of folks who have decided they'll be volunteering for some campaign, and spending Election Day urging every single friend and neighbor to get out and vote. Now that would be democracy in action!

Since I couldn't wait 45 minutes yesterday, and do plan to be volunteering on Tuesday, I will have to vote absentee. If you plan to do so as well, there are six office locations for the County Clerk  including the Skokie Courthouse. Hours for all locations:

  • Friday, October 29 -- 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Saturday, October 30 -- 9 a.m. to noon
  • Sunday, October 31 -- 9 a.m. to noon
  • Monday, November 1 -- 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.