Voters push to get registered

Clare Howard

It was a cold, rainy October night 1½ hours before midnight, a time when most people couldn't be wrenched from home to run an errand. But they came. In work uniforms, sweat pants, jeans and pajamas.

Some were chagrined about procrastinating so long. Others were exuberant about seizing the opportunity. Some drove, part of a steady stream of cars. Others walked in groups of Bradley University students. Their destination was a tent humming in the illumination of a gas-fueled generator in the parking lot at Campustown shopping center.

Midnight was the deadline for voter registration.

With a historic election weeks away, voter registration is expected to reach an all-time high. In at least 30 states, including Illinois, all registered voters are eligible to vote early at a number of designated locations. This is the first presidential election in Illinois with early voting.

Without much time to spare, Antron Evans, 29, parked his sparkling SUV in the parking lot at Campustown, jacked up the legs of his athletic pants and stepped carefully around puddles approaching the tent.

He had been home when he heard about this tent on the 10 p.m. television news.

'I always vote. I want my voice to be heard,' said Evans, a barber who moved recently and had to register at his new address.

The mood in the tent was upbeat despite the weather and occasional rivulets of water when wind blew under the flaps. By midnight, more than 400 people ranging in age from 18 to 86 had come to register.

Volunteers Jackie Petty and Pat Kenny have worked for years on voter registration and think interest this year is unprecedented. Petty recently registered an 80-year-old, first-time voter. Kenny said even college students who move from one dorm to another dorm must re-register to vote ... and they are doing it.

Every person who came to the tent in Campustown was encouraged to vote early. The Pew Center on the States estimates as many as a third of all voters nationwide will vote early.

Paul Gronke, director of The Early Voting Information Center at Reed College currently on sabbatical working with The Pew Center on the States, said some states are expecting 50 percent voting early.

He said past evidence shows both Democrats and Republicans vote early in about equal numbers.

'Homeowners with kids, people on a swing shift or punching a time clock, but also people with complicated lives who travel or have long commutes or don't know if they'll be out of town,' Gronke said. 'Early voting gives a window of opportunity to adjust, work out any problems.'

With record turnout expected Nov. 4, election officials point out that people who vote early will avoid lines on Election Day. Early voters also will buy themselves time to resolve unforeseen problems.

Peoria attorney Lou Benassi encountered an unforeseen problem when he went to MidState College Wednesday night to vote early. His name wasn't on the list of registered voters.

'I've been here for 25 years and voted in every election ... except 2000, when we were stuck in Europe,' he said.

Unable to vote Wednesday night, Benassi showed up at the Peoria Election Commission Thursday morning and waited in a line for 25 minutes. He learned his name had been removed from the rolls following notification sent by the state of California that he was now living in California.

His son, August Benassi III, had moved to California. Lou Benassi is legally August Benassi II. As soon as the problem was resolved, he voted.

'If I had tried to vote on Election Day, I'd have a problem. I had no idea I was off the voter rolls,' he said.

Tom Bride, executive director of the Peoria Board of Elections, said even on Election Day people with problems can get a provisional ballot, but they leave the polling place not certain their vote will be counted.

'If we can catch those problems early and resolve them, people can vote immediately,' he said. 'Early voting is tremendous, as far as I'm concerned.'

Petty said, "Early voting will help in these situations. I don't think Election Day is going to be smooth. Certain people put roadblocks to keep people from voting. We heard about certain polling places last time that turned a lot of people away. I'm working every day on this. There is a lot of intimidation."

Petty recently went to the home of Mary Ann Johnson and James Drayton across from Franklin Elementary School.

Both Johnson, 61, and Drayton, 57, are disabled. There is no regular phone in the household, just cell phones. They are among the voters routinely omitted from polling by phone.

'I like to vote every election. We recently moved back to Peoria from Springfield,' Johnson said. 'We knew the deadline for registration was coming up and knew we better register.'

Her granddaughter called the Elections Commission to ask about assistance with voter registration.

'We really can't walk. He can't walk. I'm in pain and have a hard time if I try to walk,' Johnson said. 'This helps us.'

Kenny said she and Petty worked at the bus station recently.

'That was the place to go. God's children. A lot were disabled and poor. A whole segment of society that doesn't vote,' Kenny said, noting that many people become disenfranchised by loneliness and despair.

'Those are people who have problems, and they were very positive about voting,' said Kenny, a native of Ireland who came to the United States in the 1950s.

'I came here from a country that was under the rule of England for so long, and there was not a right to vote or practice our religion. Ireland had a long history of being subjected, of losing freedoms. I'm very passionate about people being involved, voting and participating in the process.'

She said volunteers working on voter registration don't discuss candidates.

'We can't discuss who people are voting for,' Kenny said. 'Obama is young and inspiring. Many young people are excited by him. Now we are seeing a lot of older people, and the economy is their concern. I have worked on campaigns forever. Voting should be so simple, but we have never seen so many people with so many problems not being able to vote.'

Rudy Lewis, Peoria County Republican chairman, said, 'It's really hard to predict how many will vote early. We encourage it, but a lot of Republicans will vote on election day.

'A lot more excitement is being generated this year. A lot of people are volunteering long hours to get out the vote.'

Brad McMillan, executive director for the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University and former staffer for U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said, 'Personally, I think early voting is a very good thing because it sounds like we might have long lines on Election Day. The goal is to get as much civic participation as possible.'

McMillan said the United States traditionally has one of the lower levels of voter turnout among democratic countries.

'Just look at the approval rating for Congress and the president over a long period of time and realize those institutions are not held in the highest regard,' McMillan said. 'The only way to change things for the better is to vote.'

He said one of the goals of the Institute for principled Leadership at Bradley is to help every student develop a deep understanding of democracy and become an engaged citizen.

'I am positively impressed with the number of Bradley students who have registered on campus,' he said, noting that he plans to take advantage of early voting.

The last time he went to his polling place, there were lines. It was 6:15 a.m. and the machines were down.

'And I'm not a patient guy,' he said.

Low voter turnout in America is a disappointment, McMillan said.

'Government affects all of us, and the way we as citizens can impact government is by voting. When the Iraqi people finally were given the opportunity to vote, there was 90 percent voter turnout, and those people were risking their lives to participate in the newly formed democracy,' he said. "People who fought for that democracy were not taking it for granted as much as Americans do."

Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250