Byline: Charles Keeshan Daily Herald Staff Writer
A sweeping set of election reforms set to go into effect before next year's primaries promises to make voting easier than ever for Illinois voters.
But it also could make things more difficult and costly than ever for the people who run elections and the taxpayers who fund them.
County clerks and local election authorities are bracing for huge costs and potential chaos as a result of election law changes signed into law by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in August.
The new laws include provisions allowing voters to cast their ballots up to three weeks before Election Day, register anywhere in the state and vote despite missing the usual registration deadline.
"We're taking advantage of better technology to make voting easier for the public," said state Rep. Kathleen Ryg, a Vernon Hills Democrat and one of the bill's sponsors. "Hopefully, it will increase voter turnout."
However, suburban election officials say while they appreciate the new laws' intentions, their scope and timing present an unfair burden on them and their staffs.
"It's going to mean a lot of extra work at a very busy time," McHenry County Clerk Katherine Schultz said. "From what we're hearing budgetwise, it could double our costs. It's kind of mind- boggling."
Drawing the most ire is the state's creation of "early voting," a provision that will allow voters to cast ballots between the 22nd and fifth day prior to Election Day.
Each local election authority will be required to set up at least one location for early voting, though most suburban officials say they plan to set up several in each county.
Unlike voters who cast absentee ballots, early voters are not required to provide a reason for heading to the polls early.
Proponents say the measure will encourage greater turnout and make voting far more convenient for those who find it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day.
"The good news is I think voters are going to like it," Cook County Clerk David Orr said.
But some election officials fear voters will like it too much. In states where early voting exists as many as half of all ballots are cast early.
In suburban counties, that could mean hundreds of thousands of voters clogging their offices and other voting locations to cast an early ballot.
"If we're looking at thousands of people at a location on any given day, that's not going to flow well," Schultz said.
Schultz and her peers across the suburbs today are scrambling to find facilities - county buildings, township offices and even retail outlets - to serve as hosts of early voting locations.
Then there are staffing issues.
Under the law, local election officials must have at least one early voting location open every weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on weekends and holidays from 9 a.m. to noon.
That means paying for staff and election judges - one from …