Henry Kersee stood in front of the Cook County Clerk's Office Saturday morning decorated head to toe in "Vote Patricia Van Pelt Watkins" buttons. The 58-year-old Austin resident was one of over 250 people who decided to spend their weekend morning waiting in line to cast their ballots early for Chicago's next mayor.
"I wanted to make sure that my voted counted," said Kersee. "If you come out early and vote for your candidate, people will see those results and it'll encourage them to do the same."
The rally for Patricia Van Pelt Watkins urging supporters to vote early (but not often, as the saying goes) is part of a larger push throughout the city to get people the polls well in advance of Election Day. Candidates are using Twitter and Facebook in addition to old campaign standbys like phone banking and commercials to raise awareness about early voting. From the rally for Gery Chico Sunday in Humboldt Park to the text messages from Rahm Emanuel's campaign about how to find the nearest early voting site, candidates want to ensure all Chicagoans exercise their democratic right to vote--sooner rather than later. For many, the impetus behind early voting stems not only from a desire to gain an early momentum, but also from the sense of possibility this historic election presents.
"It's incredible that this many people came out on a Saturday morning because they want real change," said Reverend Robin Hood of North Lawndale, who attended the Watkins rally.
Although mayoral forums are still on the docket and election drama continues to unfold, the unique dynamics in this election have many Chicagoans convinced they've heard enough. The city had the second highest opening day turnout on Jan. 31 since early voting began in 2006, according to Board of Election spokesman Jim Allen.
"We were chugging along on the first day," Allen said. "Early voting is usually a reflection of how many people have their minds made up."
Based on initial numbers, early voting in the current election cycle is poised to eclipse the 2008 presidential primary, despite the storm-induced slowdown.
Friday, Chicago got back on track as early voting resumed after a two-day snow closure. Shortly after the polls reopened across the city, Chicago Board of Election administrator Cephus Cihran paced the near-empty polling place on the fourth floor of Access Living at 115 W. Chicago Ave. and waited for the first ballot to be cast.
"Some people just like early voting. Why not sit at home on Election Day and just watch the numbers?" asked Cihran.
Election judges at the Chicago Avenue site, one of 51 early polling places across the city, noted that voters were coming in right up until closing on Tuesday even after the storm was in full swing. Early voters can go to any polling place regardless of residency and need only show a valid photo ID to vote.
Allen suggested that genuine interest in this year's historic election is driving people to the polls well in advance of Election Day. It's the first time an incumbent candidate hasn't been on the ballot since 1947, said Allen, and for some, that translates into a unique window of opportunity to affect change and make a difference.
"There are communities and populations within the city who have been locked out of City Hall for decades and this election represents a chance to open the doors of City Hall to all communities and all citizens of Chicago," Patricia Van Pelt Watkins said in a statement.
Watkins also issued a press release noting that the epic blizzard was case in point as to why voters need to get to the polls early.
Dick Simpson, the head of the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago Alderman, said that the changing of the guard in City Hall will definitely increase voter turnout, early and otherwise.
"People always vote more heavily when elections are contested," he said. "In addition, aldermanic elections are driving up registration."
Simpson also noted that the Latino vote, which in the past has been lower than other demographics due to language and citizenship barriers, is expected to increase in this election.
"Even though they hold a balance of power, this is the first election where there've been viable Latino candidates for mayor," he said.
Still, some Chicagoans are gathering information, weighing their options and bracing for a different type of storm before casting their vote.
"Every election, people say that they want to wait until the last minute just in case some scandal erupts," Cihran said.
At about 9:40 a.m. Saturday, the first voters started to straggle into the Chicago Avenue polling place. Streeterville resident Nicholas Ferlis, 63, came to cast an early vote simply because he had free time and wanted to avoid the crowds.
"I've seen as much as I needed to make a decision," he said, though he wouldn't reveal who he voted for.
James Linz, 79, of the 42nd ward cast his vote for Gery Chico. Like many early voters, he'll be out of town on Election Day and he'd firmly made up his mind.
"I think there will be more democratic give and take with the council with Chico," Linz said. "There wouldn't be with Emanuel."
Though Allen said the phones aren't ringing off the hook at the Chicago Board of Elections, he's pleased with the early turnout thus far.
"It's wonderful. Any time you've got more interest, you're going to have more people."
Early voting continues through Thursday, February 17. Click here for a full list of hours and locations.
Alizah Salario is a freelance writer living in Chicago.