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Storm — and lack of interest — kept Aurora voters from polls

Electijudges Holly Guzzardi Ken Fields keep each other company Ward 9 precinct Wheatlands Elementary School AurorTuesday Feb.26 2013. As noonly

Election judges Holly Guzzardi and Ken Fields keep each other company at a Ward 9 precinct at Wheatlands Elementary School in Aurora on Tuesday, Feb.26, 2013. As of noon only 4 people had voted in the city primary. Steven Buyansky | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 26, 2013 10:13PM

Battling sleet and snow, Aurora voters dribbled into polling places Tuesday to cast their vote in the primary election for alderman in the 9th and 4th wards and Aurora Township Democratic candidates.

Many polling places saw only a handful of voters, likely due to bad weather and lack of information about the candidates, poll workers said.

At the polls at Wheatland Elementary School, in the 9th Ward on the far East Side, only one person cast her vote after five hours of the polling place’s 6 a.m. opening — and she was a poll worker.

To pass the time, Holly Guzzardi joked that she and her fellow poll workers could exercise.

“This is an election people really didn’t know about,” Guzzardi said, adding many voters would likely head home after work instead of casting their vote due to Tuesday’s storm.

At Wesley United Methodist Church on the near West Side, three poll workers huddled around a table waiting for voters, happy they’d brought cards to pass the time.

Their polling place was one of a few where the low expectations for voter turnout had been surpassed.

By 2 p.m., the poll workers’ early morning predictions — 30, 45, 50 voters — had been trumped, as 62 people had cast their ballot.

“I think more people would have voted if they had more information,” poll worker Heidi Bell said of the Aurora Township race. Bell said she had trouble finding independent information about the candidates online and had to rely on the candidates’ mailers, which she thought were “a little biased.”

Fewer races, fewer votes

From the computer on his desk, Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham could watch ballots as they were cast into the boxes at each precinct, but he may as well have been watching the grass grow in the February snowstorm.

“It’s very disappointing,” Cunningham said. “All in all, the election is going very well except that nobody’s voted.”

Slightly more than 900 people countywide had cast ballots as of 4 p.m., Cunningham said.

That’s just 2 percent of the 57,000 registered voters affected by Tuesday’s contests.

He attributed the low turnout to the very small number of primary races. Changes to election laws kicked in this year so that there must be at least five candidates running for a seat in order for a primary to be held. During the last consolidated local election, just three candidates for any one seat triggered a primary election. As a result of the change, only a handful of aldermanic and township races in Aurora and Elgin were happening Tuesday.

However, the small number of races meant that only about two dozen polling places had to open Tuesday.

“To have to open the whole county would have been an astronomical amount of money,” Cunningham said.

Weather worries

Linda Fechner, Aurora Election Commission executive director, said that voter turnout on primary Tuesday was “very quiet.” But she said that the snowy weather conditions would not affect people’s decision to make it to the polls.

“Those who want to come out and vote are going to,” Fechner said.

The city hasn’t had primary since 2007, when Ward 3 and Ward 5 candidates faced a primary election first, Fechner said. About 10 percent of ward voters turned out in that primary election.

“But this is a different one,” Fechner said. “(We have) Aurora Township, which we’ve never had a primary before, and Ward 9 is a relatively new ward.”

Cunningham, however, did attribute low turnout to the weather. The number of ballots cast per hour began to drop once the icy, sleet-filled wintry-mix snowstorm blew in, he said.

But Cunningham said that, unlike in Aurora, the snow could delay ballot counting.

“The judges have to bring (the ballots) in to get counted, and the weather could stop that,” Cunningham said. “We could get hung up a little later if someone further north has a problem getting their car down the street.”

At Homestead Elementary in the 9th Ward, 13 voters cast their ballots in the first five hours of polling, some as they picked their children up from school.

Joe Baran, 60, voted at Homestead in the primary because he said his ward needed a new alderman and because he’d learned in recent years how important primary races are.

“I have an obligation,” Baran said of voting. “It’s not just a privilege, which some people take for granted. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”

Jenette Sturges and Stephanie Lulay contributed to this report.

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