Illinois Public Media News
Monday, December 28th, was the first day that voters could take out an absentee ballot for the February 2nd primary election. And for the first time, absentee voters in Illinois don't have to give a reason for wanting to vote early --- thanks to a new state law that took effect last August.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden says the new law exempting voters from having to state a reason for voting absentee makes absentee voting more like early voting ---except that it begins two weeks earlier, and can be done by mail. Shelden says the change will mean even more ballots cast before Election Day. Danville Election Commission Director Barbara Dreher agrees. She thinks the level of both early and absentee voting will "rise up exponentially, and take the pressure off of the polling places on Election Day".
Such ballots already make up a sizable percentage of ballots cast in elections. In the November 2008 election, about 12 percent of Champaign County ballots and nearly 10 percent of Danville ballots were cast early or absentee.
Shelden predicts that as more ballots are cast before Election Day, Election Day itself will lose its importance as a civic event engaging all voters at the same time.
"I don't want to say that's negative, but it's going to be almost a bygone memory in a matter of four or five years", says Shelden. "I think we'll see so many people voting early that Election Day will, in itself, have a different meaning to people."
Shelden thinks more pre-Election Day voting will also change campaign strategies, because campaigning in the last few days before Election Day will lose its impact.
You can apply for an absentee ballot in Illinois through your local election authority or county clerk's office --- in person, by mail or phone, and in some locations, such as Champaign County, online. Absentee ballots can be cast in Illinois until the day before Election Day.
Federal officials tried Tuesday to allay fears that moving terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois could make the state a terrorist target.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, told a legislative panel at a public hearing in Sterling that Thomson would be the most secure of all federal prisons in the country.
Other testimony on the plan to bring terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Thomson Correctional Center appeared evenly split between supporters and critics.
Several conservative opponents of the plan were among the last to testify at a high school auditorium near the Thomson Correctional Center as the hearing ran late into the night Tuesday.
Denise Cattoni of the Illinois TEA Party organization told the panel that Americans aren't being told enough about the implications of any such transfer.
Cattoni said they merely woke up one morning and were told "Gitmo was moving to Illinois.''
But a series of leaders from communities in and near Thomson told the panel their constituents are clamoring for the kind of economic boost a fully open Thomson prison would provide.
Governor Pat Quinn plans to sell Thomson to the federal government to house detainees and for a maximum-security federal prison, and the public hearing probably will not change that. The 12-member Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability could vote on a recommendation to sell Thomson, but Quinn does not have to follow the recommendation.
The hearing adjourned at 9 p.m., and the commission said it would not vote on the proposal before Jan. 14.
Champaign police say a gambling operation broken up by officers last week had been going on for nearly four months.
Deputy Chief John Murphy says the two Champaign men arrested Thursday, December 17th on charges of Gambling and Keeping a Gambling Place had rented out a storage unit in the 600 block of Ashford Court, furnishing it with heating and air conditioning, gaming equipment and selling food. And Murphy says 43-year old Jeffrey Wingo and 30-year old Brandyn Odell were charging $50 admission for players when police executed a search warrant that evening. Those two men and 18 others were issued notices to appear in court for Gambling-Betting or Wagering. And Murphy says the large amounts of potential winnings for players brought in many from outside the area. "Some of them had addresses as far away as Wilmette and Bloomington, and so there were people that were making a concerted effort to participate in the games," says Murphy. "They had dry erase boards up that had the dollar equivalent for each color chip, and based on what we saw there, it was certainly possible for thousands of dollars to end up on the table at any one time."
Murphy says anywhere from 20 to 50 people would show up the alleged poker games on a given night. He says Champaign Police were tipped off by a family member of someone who frequently joined the games. Wingo and Odell are expected to make their first court appearances next month.
A spokeswoman for the Chicago-based agency that helps run the waterways into Lake Michigan says it's unfortunate that Michigan's attorney general is going to the U.S. Supreme Court over Asian carp.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox today sued the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the state of Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The lawsuit seeks closure of shipping locks near Chicago to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes and endangering the $7 billion fishing industry.
Water district spokeswoman Jill Horist calls the lawsuit unfortunate and says it won't bring a solution any sooner.
A spokeswoman says Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is reviewing the lawsuit and has no comment for now.
Disappointment has been a common evaluation of the Copenhagen climate conference that ended last week.
It wrapped up with nations signing an accord that sets recommended guidelines for carbon emissions but didn't set any binding agreements or long-term goals.
Adam Lentz is a University of Illinois environmental sciences graduate student who got the chance to sit in on the talks. The native of Copenhagen feels most people left without very much optimism - and many world leaders left well before the end of the talks.
"It was, literally, almost all of them," Lentz told AM 580 from Denmark. "They were fleeing Copenhagen before they actually signed off on anything. I have never heard of any other meeting where world leaders gathered and they didn't take what they call a family photo."
Lentz says most observers were surprised by the unity displayed among the nation's developing countries - one likened it to a new world order. He was also struck by the assertiveness of countries that could be more directly affected by climate change, specifically island nations like the Maldives.
Opponents and supporters of a plan to move up to 100 alleged terrorists to Illinois from Guantanamo Bay are preparing to address the first state legislative hearing on the issue.
Around 50 people are scheduled to testify at Tuesday's hearing before the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
They include labor union officials who say selling the Thomson Correctional Center to the federal government to house detainees will create hundreds of jobs.
Opponents scheduled to speak include conservative activist Beverly Perlson. She says U.S. Naval detention center in Cuba has worked well and that there's no good reason to bring prisoners to the small northwestern Illinois community.
The hearing is at a high school auditorium in Sterling, which is southeast of Thomson.
Employee buyouts are being looked at as another option for the University of Illinois to cut costs next spring.
Campus units were told earlier this month to make contingency plans to reduce spending by 7, 10, and 15 percent. Those plans were to be submitted earlier this week. U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says this is just another possibility as state reimbursements to the university are behind by about $400 million. "For several months the university has been struggling with a mounting financial crisis," says Kaler. "We're working on several options and buyouts are one of those, but we don't have details yet on any of the options." Kaler says it's too early to speculate who may take advantage of a buyout plan.
The U of I is also considering implementing a furlough policy next spring that's already been put together. Kaler says administrators have other cost-cutting proposals on the table, but couldn't be more specific.
The sponsor of a bill to eliminate the 50 percent tuition waivers available for children of state university employees says it's a sacrifice the state needs to make.
Dave Winters of the Rockford area submitted the bill (HB4706) last week and acknowledges that he's received some unhappy phone calls from state-employed parents since he did so. But Republican state representative says public employees shouldn't be seen as having a special privilege not available to others.
"We have to realize that it's a fiscal crisis", says Winters. "The state can shut down the universities. If we go another year or two in the current spending habits without making some tough decisions, I think we're facing disaster this year with so many of our social service agencies on the verge of closing or having already closed."
Winters also says he'll probably amend the bill to allow students already using the tuition waivers to continue to do so. And he says he would add a controversial scholarship program for state lawmakers to the chopping block.
Winters also says universities could be given the option of continuing the tuition waivers, but he says they'd have to compete with many other programs and services for a shrinking pool of state funding. He expects more lawmakers to sign onto his bill when the legislature reconvenes next month.
February's primary in Champaign County will proceed with no changes in how the votes are tabulated.
County Clerk Mark Shelden had sought a temporary restraining order against Illinois' undervote notification law, saying it infringes on voter privacy. The measure means tabulating machines make a beeping noise when voters fail to vote for a candidate in one of the statewide races. County Judge Michael Jones denied Shelden's motion Thursday. Jones said while voters have a fundamental right to a secret ballot, he said the law didn't require those machines to be used. Illinois Attorney General Spokeswoman Natalie Bauer says they're pleased with the ruling.
Shelden says it's unfortunate that Champaign County doesn't have another choice, and has to proceed with this equipment. But he believes he'll have an even stronger case after the primary. "People are going to be highly offended at the machines and what they're going to do, getting these error messages," says Shelden. "And a lot of people aren't even going to deal with it. A lot of the people are going just to walk out of the booth and say that somebody else deals with it."
Shelden says he'll also present complaints about the primary voting process from other counties, noting that optical scan machines are the only available tabulating machines in the state. He's hoping to have the undervote law declared unconstitutional. And Shelden is facing criticism from County Auditor Tony Fabri for spending more than $5,000 to hire a private attorney for the case. Shelden says he would have preferred the Champaign County State's Attorney take up the case, but it found no legal basis on which to proceed. He says his office spends tens of thousands of dollars to ensure that a fair election is conducted, and won't apologize for it.
An Illinois lawmaker has set his sights on a tuition waiver program for children of state university employees as a potential target for elimination.
A bill filed last week by Representative Dave Winters of the Rockford area would remove language that makes children of an employee eligible for a 50 percent waiver on undergraduate tuition at any state institution.
That prospect concerns Winters' fellow Republican representative Chapin Rose of Mahomet. But he also says he was under the impression that universities should make up their own minds on whether to offer the benefit.
"I guess the way I'd look at it is that's a choice that each university has just like any business in terms of their overall compensation package," Rose said. "If they want to give their faculty a raise rather than a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business. If they'd rather do a flat salary and a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business."
University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy says the U of I hasn't taken a stand on the bill yet, saying administrators will want to talk with Winters.
Rose says it would make more sense for the state to get rid of the program that lets General Assembly members offer scholarships to the students of their choice. Winters has not returned a call seeking comment.
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