(MCT) — After two years of hard campaigning, dozens of debates, hundreds of robocalls, thousands of negative ads and millions of dollars in special interest money, Election Day arrives today to give voters the final say over the direction of the country and their government.
With the polls open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Illinois voters are casting ballots for president, Congress, the state legislature, and in hundreds of more localized contests.
Statewide voters will consider a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution asking whether it should be tougher for government to improve public employee pension benefits. Even if approved, the measure would have little impact on the nation's most underfunded public pension system. Dozens of localized referendum issues also are on the ballot.
Even before today, more than a half-million people cast ballots in Chicago and suburban Cook County through early voting and voting by mail. With mailed-in ballots still arriving, the total was slightly below the 557,161 pre-election day ballots cast four years ago.
On Monday, Chicago election officials issued a cautionary note: two of every 10 city voters have a new polling place this time as a result of the redrawing of political boundaries after the federal census.
Illinois has not been in play during the expensive presidential campaign, with Republican Mitt Romney effectively ceding it to home-state President Barack Obama. But the top of the ticket contest could have coattails in the state’s new 18 congressional districts.
Obama was scheduled to arrive in Chicago early this morning and hold an evening rally at McCormick Place. In between, Obama plans to continue his tradition of playing basketball on Election Day, a campaign aide said.
Next up on the ballot are congressional contests, which feature new districts Democrats drew to try to reverse Republican gains in elections two years ago. Illinois is a key part of the national strategy by Democrats to regain control of the U.S. House. Democrats nationally need a net pickup of 25 seats to win the chamber, though polling across the country has suggested it will be difficult for them to take control.
In Illinois, six congressional races are highly competitive — three in the suburbs and three Downstate. Together, the six contests have attracted more than $43 million in outside money, the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed for the creation of super political action committees that can spend unlimited amounts of money.
Locally, the most closely fought congressional races have been in the northwest and west suburban 8th Congressional District, the North Shore 10th Congressional District and the west and southwest suburban 11th District. The candidates spent the day before the election making the traditional round of train stations, diners and local businesses.
In the nationally watched 8th District, freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh took a lunch break at an Elgin taqueria. Walsh, a tea party icon battling Democrat Tammy Duckworth, has used the closing days of the campaign to try to spur a ground game for Tuesday.
"I feel like something's going on, there's been so much good grassroots energy. ... I think it's going to be very close," Walsh said. "I am hopeful."
Walsh said even if he doesn't win, he "fought the good fight" and defied Democrats who wanted him to run against Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren of Winfield in the March primary when Walsh's McHenry home was drawn into the new 14th District.
"If I stayed where I was, I would have won the primary," Walsh said. "But it is important to have this fight, to debate about the real issues."
Duckworth visited her Rolling Meadows campaign office to thank volunteers making phone calls as part of a get out the vote effort.
"Thank you for making the calls," Duckworth told one supporter. "There's no possible way my team and I could make all these calls on our own and get to the range of people we need to get to."
Duckworth said visits to volunteers help her recharge after long days on the campaign trail.
"Every time I think I'm getting tired, I'm not, because I come in here and I have amazing, amazing supporters," Duckworth said. "People are calling, people are door knocking and we really are just incredibly energized."
In the 10th District, freshman Republican Rep. Robert Dold arrived at Keats Manufacturing Co. in Wheeling on the red, white and blue tour bus that has carried him around the district in the closing days of the campaign.
"I want to be your voice in this Congress," Dold said, before employees joined him for a photo in front of his tour bus.
Democratic challenger Brad Schneider campaigned among the capacity lunch crowd at Max and Benny's Restaurant in Northbrook. Schneider, in blue suit pants and a yellow sweater, spent minutes at some tables, talking about positions, passing out pamphlets and asking for votes.
Asked about Tuesday's voting, Deerfield's Schneider told a table of diners "It's going to be really close, but I feel really good about how the Democrats are doing."
In the 11th District, the campaigns for both Republican Rep. Judy Biggert and Democrat Bill Foster said they expect the result to be very close.
Biggert started her campaign's final day at 5:30 a.m. greeting commuters at the Route 59 Metra station in Naperville, before hitting a handful of diners in DuPage County. Foster delivered pizzas to supporters at a Joliet phone bank and also visited volunteers at offices in Bolingbrook, Aurora and Naperville.
In 2008, voters in the area that now makes up the new 11th District voted overwhelmingly for Obama, who collected 61 percent of the vote there. But in 2010, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady won the district.
Foster acknowledged the race is very tight in a district drawn for a Democrat to win, but he pointed to Biggert's incumbency status as an advantage for her. Foster said he was confident he would win because his party’s voters learned a lesson in 2010.
"The people who were on the ground in 2010 and today just say there is no comparison in the level of Democratic enthusiasm," said Foster, who lost his old House seat in that election. "Democrats who may have stayed home last election are coming out, because they understand that when they stay home bad things happen to our country, and the tea party Congress in the perfect example of that."
Biggert spokesman Gill Stevens said the campaign’s get out the vote efforts had been extremely successful. "We feel very good about our chances," he said.
Tribune reporters Monique Garcia, Duaa Eldeib, Bill Ruthhart and Dan Hinkel contributed.