A few hardy and committed Illinois voters began casting ballots last week. Early voting for the February 2nd primary began on Monday, January 11th.
Chicago elections officials say turnout averaged less than 2000 people a day at 51 early-voting sites, over the first week. That’s less than 40 people per day, per site (to find out where to early-vote in Chicago, go to http://www.chicagoelections.com/page.php?id=9 ). At the Jackson Park site, at mid-morning on the Martin Luther King holiday, elections judges said just nine folks had cast ballots.
Discounting Massachusetts’ special Senate election, no other state is starting the campaign season this early in 2010 (Illinois leaves 295 days between its first early-voting opportunity and general election day, November 2nd). Except for Texas’ March 2 primary, no other states vote until May, and 38 of the 50 states cast primary ballots after June 1st.
Why so early? Illinois moved its primary up in 2008, hoping to increase the state’s clout in the Presidential primary process, and provide a boost for home-state candidate Barack Obama on what was dubbed “Super-Duper Tuesday”. It worked—Illinois gave Obama its 104 delegates, helping him to a slim overall edge over Hillary Clinton on 2008’s biggest primary night.
In this off-year election, though, keeping the primary in February means many holiday-distracted voters won’t focus on their political choices, meaning turnout may suffer. Campaign ads have had to compete with Christmas-season promotions and January White Sales.
Who’ll benefit? Incumbents, by and large, should prosper in this quick-pitch political calendar, riding advantages in fund-raising and name-recognition to primary victories before challengers make much of a dent in the consciousness of the electorate.
Little surprise then, that legislative incumbents who moved the primary date up to maximize political clout are in no hurry to move it back to a later date. The Illinois legislature has a history of looking out for the already-entrenched. Just last year, lawmakers passed campaign-finance reform that limited political contributions by virtually everyone except state legislative leaders, who have huge war chests to distribute to their favored House and Senate candidates.
After Illinois’ Groundhog Day primary, triumphant party nominees may well go into semi-hibernation for months, hoarding their resources until voters focus on the campaign again, in the fall.
A premature primary certainly increases the chances of “voter’s remorse”, down the line. Democratic primary voters might want more time to observe Gov. Quinn’s response to the state’s budget crisis. A later primary would give GOP primary voters a better chance to assess whether Mark Kirk is the rock-ribbed conservative of the 2010 campaign, or whether he is truly the moderate he appeared to be, in voting for cap-and-trade legislation. With U.S. Senate candidates split on the “surge” in Afghanistan, voters might benefit from a few more months of observation, to see whether the Obama policy helps make that country safer and more governable?
Most voters across the country already think campaigns last too long. Illinoisans, forced to make their primary choices on the same day Punxsatawney Phil makes his, are likely to contract an acute case of campaign fatigue.