(MCT) — As early voting in Illinois begins Monday, Chicago-area election officials say a record number of ballots could be cast before Election Day.
But that increase isn't expected to come from early voting centers alone.
Election officials also are predicting strong surges in the number of votes sent by mail, an option that state law has made much more convenient since the 2008 presidential election.
Previously, voters could only send in their ballot with a stamp if they had an excuse, such as being out of town on Election Day. Now, not only can voters choose to vote by mail as a preference, but campaigns are allowed to solicit them by sending vote-by-mail request forms. Potential voters then can fill out their ballots and send them to their local election authority.
With little more than two weeks before the election, the changes have led Chicago and suburban Cook County to exceed the number of mail votes cast in 2008. In the city, there have been 23,000 mail votes so far, about 1,000 more than four years ago. In suburban Cook, the 30,000 mail votes cast are 3,000 more than in 2008.
"There's no doubt we're expecting a lot of people to vote early, but whether the early voting goes as gangbusters as it did four years ago is hard to say," said Cook County Clerk David Orr. "But I believe this: Between the combination of vote by mail and early voting, we'll have more people vote before Election Day than ever before."
In DuPage County, about 12,000 voters cast ballots by mail in 2008, but this year the county is expecting 40,000.
Early voting trends were identical in Chicago, suburban Cook and DuPage four years ago: 24 percent of the ballots cast came from early voting centers.
Election officials are sensing the same strong interest in early voting this year, and a change in state law will allow voters to procrastinate even more this time around.
Previously, early voting started a week earlier but ended the Thursday before the election. State lawmakers decided to scrap the first week of early voting, when turnout typically was modest. In exchange, they extended early voting through the Saturday before the election. This year, that's Nov. 3.
Adding those two days during a period when early voting is its heaviest has the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners "cautiously optimistic" that the city will exceed its number of early votes from 2008, said spokesman Jim Allen.
Four years ago, millions of voters across the country grew more accustomed to making their choices before Election Day when campaigns — President Barack Obama's in particular — encouraged and even bused voters to cast ballots early.
This year, that practice will become routine for many voters, said Bob Saar, executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission.
"Once people early vote, they clearly like it," he said. "That has been the trend nationwide."
The city's Allen suggested the stark differences between the presidential candidates also could help boost the early votes.
"Early voting is always reflective of how many people have made their minds up, and if you believe the polls, there are very few people who are undecided out there," he said. "A lot of people already have made their decision, so we're bracing for a very solid push on early voting."
That eagerness was illustrated when hundreds of Chicago voters showed up to early voting centers last week ready to cast ballots after hearing reports of early voting under way in other states, Allen said.
Election officials stressed that those who wish to vote early must present a government-issued ID, which is not required on Election Day. They also reminded voters they can vote early at any location within their voting jurisdiction.
For example, Chicago has an early voting center in each of the city's 50 wards, but city voters can cast an early ballot at any of them. The same goes for suburban locations in Cook and the surrounding collar counties.
Many early voting centers are open Monday through Saturday, and a handful offer Sunday hours.