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Voter registration down in Chicago, Cook but is up in many area counties

Published: Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 9:14 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 9:34 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Voter registration is down in Chicago and Cook County compared with four years ago, but has increased slightly in most of the suburban collar counties.

The numbers from county to county may differ, but election officials agree on a few observations in advance of Tuesday's voter registration deadline: They don't expect the same unprecedented flood of last-minute registration forms as in 2008. They haven't seen teams of campaign workers scavenging for every last unregistered voter. And they don't sense the same level of sheer enthusiasm from voters.

"It's nothing like four years ago," said Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots. "Then we had a 40,000 increase in voter registrations. This time, we're not seeing that at all."

Will, DuPage, McHenry and Kane counties have seen slight increases of 1 or 2 percent relative to four years ago as of Friday. In 2008, those counties averaged an increase of nearly 7 percent.

Election officials cited an enthusiasm gap as the main driver behind smaller increases. The unprecedented opportunity to vote for hometown candidate Barack Obama to become the first African-American president not only had voters more energized, they said, but also had the political ground forces too.

"Four years ago, there was this great level of excitement that spurred on lots of local voter registration drives at the street level with lots of different interest groups and the political parties searching out unregistered voters," said Bob Saar, executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission. "That sort of ground game isn't in play this time."

In 2008, Lake County voter registrations jumped by 6 percent. This year, Clerk Willard Helander is hoping the registrations will pull close to even with the 2008 total, but the county would need to collect about 7,000 more registrations to do so.

During the last presidential campaign, Helander said she remembered various unions and other groups dropping off hundreds and hundreds of voter registration forms. Not this year.

That also holds true for Chicago and suburban Cook. Registrations have dropped by more than 12 percent in the city and more than 4 percent in the suburbs relative to 2008.

Both the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and County Clerk David Orr pointed to a purge of voter rolls as a major reason for the decrease in registered voters, but they also acknowledged a drop in enthusiasm.

In suburban Cook, a canvass to clear voters from the rolls who have died or moved resulted in eliminating 100,000 names. The Chicago election board has conducted two such canvasses since the last election, said spokesman Jim Allen.

While Allen said there is no chance the city will see a final week surge of 100,000 registrations like it did four years ago, he said voters are still motivated.

"We've got a lot of people who are suddenly very focused on getting registered," he said. "It's not the blockbuster rush we saw in 2008, but it's still fairly significant."

The same is true in suburban Cook, where 45,000 voters have registered in the last five weeks.

"I really do think there is a lot of interest in this election," Orr said. "It may not be the kind of zealousness there was four years ago, but getting those 45,000 registrations shows there is a lot of interest."

In the last six days before the 2008 deadline, Cook County collected 30,000 voter registrations.

Still, election officials are doing what they can to accommodate the procrastinators again this year.

The Chicago election board will keep its 69 W. Washington St. office open Monday, even though it is Columbus Day, a state holiday.

On Tuesday, suburban Cook will extend the hours of its downtown office and suburban courthouses until 8 p.m.

Chicago's office will remain open until midnight Tuesday, when officials even have received clearance from police to allow drivers to leave their vehicles on Washington Street after rush hour with emergency flashers on as they rush into the building's lobby to register.

And if voters still blow the deadline, there is one last chance. A voter registration grace period will run until Nov. 3, during which registration at the county clerk or election commission is allowed, but the voter must cast an early ballot at the same time.

"We haven't been talking about that much yet," Orr said, "because we don't want to encourage it."

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