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Associated Press Writer   24 January 2008

Everywhere in Illinois, voters are heading to polling places early to pick their candidates ahead of the Feb. 5 primary election.

Well, almost everywhere.

At least six Illinois counties - Kendall, Hancock, JoDaviess, LaSalle, Wabash and Woodford - have had significant delays in receiving their ballots for the rapidly approaching election. Some received their ballots this week, while a couple are still waiting.

The delay has forced election officials to either use new software to print out ballots for early and absentee voters "on demand" or turn them away altogether. It's also compressed election preparation time, making officials nervous about getting everything done with only 12 days before the polls open.

"It's a lot of different situations that are occurring," Kendall County Clerk Rennetta Mickelson said. "It's not easy."

Mickelson could face the toughest job of the county clerks affected. Her suburban Chicago county is the largest and hoped to receive its thousands of ballots by Friday.

After that, officials will have to test voting equipment, double-check ballots for printing errors and spend late nights and a lot of overtime hours to ensure everything is ready to go for Election Day.

And it's even more challenging because Kendall County is part of a special primary election for a congressional seat vacated by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

The ballot problem is with Election Systems & Software, or ES&S, an election vendor that's been involved in thousands of elections throughout the world.

The company is working with 33 Illinois counties this election and a time crunch delayed ballots to the counties affected, the company said in a statement.

Illinois lawmakers moved the primary up from its usual late-March timeframe to Feb. 5 for two reasons: To make the state more of a factor in the national presidential nomination process and give hometown U.S. Sen. and Democratic candidate Barack Obama a boost in his presidential bid.

ES&S spokeswoman Amanda Brown said the company has worked hard to get ballots printed for all the counties it serves and has no specific reason why some got theirs late.

"There's nothing out of the ordinary for those counties," Brown said.

Complicating matters was Illinois' new early voting option, which debuted in 2006 and let voters start casting ballots last week.

Wabash County Clerk Marie Kolb said her southeastern Illinois county hasn't heard any complaints from voters about not seeing ballots until Wednesday, but it has made her office's work more difficult.

"We should not have to go through this," Kolb said. "We've got enough to worry about. We're working overtime already."

Hancock County Clerk Kerry Asbridge is fed up with the situation after receiving most but not all of his county's ballots Wednesday.

Last week he asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the growing cost of elections and ballot problems but said Thursday he hasn't heard anything about the request.

"Technology is supposed to cut cost, not increase them," Asbridge said.

Other counties seeing the delay avoided turning voters away with "ballot on demand," a program that lets them print out ballots at the clerk's office when people request them.

Asbridge said his far-western Illinois county doesn't have the money to afford on-demand ballot technology but would-be early voters have been understanding.

"They are making a friendly inquiry," Asbridge said.

Clerks in the other counties say they breathed a little easier when their ballots showed up this week, after so many years of printing the long-gone paper ballot style themselves. Illinois counties now use optical scan machines and outside vendors do much of the legwork.

"I think we all kind of worried," LaSalle County Clerk JoAnn Carretto said. "We were used to the old way, and it's still a learning trend."

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