M. Spencer Green, Associated Press
CHICAGO — Voters across Illinois cast early ballots Monday, the first day polls opened for a primary election under a new redistricting map that could help tweak the balance of power in Springfield and Washington.
Illinois will be a battleground for U.S. House races, and the new, Democrat-drawn map could compromise the Republican majority in Illinois' congressional delegation. The state's March 20 primary also includes nominating contests for president, county offices and the Illinois House and Senate, which Democrats control.
Election officials hoped that the close Republican presidential primary and new candidates in other races would drive participation. Nearly 1 million people, or around 16 percent of voters in Illinois, cast early ballots in the November 2008 election, according to the State Board of Elections.
It was too early to gauge participation by Monday, election officials said, but voters were trickling into polling places with the economy, jobs and education on their minds.
In central Illinois, Howard Wakeland and his wife Joyce, both Republicans, cast early ballots in Urbana.
Wakeland, a retired University of Illinois associate dean of engineering, said his top issues included the economy, particularly high spending levels.
"I don't see how we can manage the debt levels and that stuff we're hearing about now," said the 85-year-old. "We just can't live that way. We're promising too much for the future for everybody."
Wakeland said although he's not enthusiastic, he supports U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, a Republican who faces primary competition for the first time in a decade and has been targeted by national Democrats as a potential pickup. Under the state's new political map, Johnson's district covers a much bigger section of central Illinois to the Missouri line.
In Chicago, 51 locations opened Monday for early voting, which runs through March 15.
Among those voting early in Chicago was Sergio Moreno, 35, who said education, the economy and immigration were the issues he was most concerned about. The Chicago resident — who was born in the U.S. but has family members who are Mexican immigrants — works the graveyard shift at a factory and attends college classes during the day.
"There are people who need help but don't get it," he said. Moreno, who's voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past, pulled a Democratic ballot Monday. In Illinois, voters don't have to register by party but must choose a party when voting.
While he supports President Barack Obama's re-election, he said the president hasn't done enough to help immigrants and was hoping a second term would address that. He said he supported U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who faces no opposition next month.
Other voters said the state's fiscal crisis was a concern for them. Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed cutting $2.7 billion from the state's approximately $14 billion Medicaid budget and he wants to reform state pensions. Illinois's backlog of unpaid bills is more than $8 billion.
Velma Wiggins, 78, is a retired teacher of the City Colleges of Chicago who pulled a Democratic ballot, as she's done for years. She said she was worried about her pension benefits and sympathized with those who rely on Medicaid for health care. She hoped state legislators would take a closer look at who any proposed cuts would affect.
"It's the future I'm looking at," she said.
More than 40 early voting locations were available for suburban Chicago voters along with dozens statewide.
In Springfield, Gina Lathan Whitener, a health and communications consultant, cast a Democratic ballot. The businesswoman said the economy is a big concern. She supports careful use of government money to improve infrastructure, neighborhood safety and environmental problems.
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