- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - In a sign of how close the contest for control of President Barack Obama’s home state is expected to be, Illinois Republicans are mounting what they call an unprecedented and costly campaign to have ineligible people purged from voter lists and recruit their own election judges before November.

With their sights on unseating a Democratic governor and winning back several congressional seats, Republicans have allocated $1 million in Cook County alone - from fundraising and the Republican Governors Association - to examine voter rolls and recruit 5,000 GOP election judges to watch over polling places in Democrat-heavy Chicago.

In two counties east of St. Louis, the party is examining obituaries to ensure the deceased are removed from the rolls and tracking down death certificates. They’re looking for addresses where utility service has been cut off to determine if registered voters have moved. And they’re checking to see whether people are voting from addresses for vacant lots or commercial properties. Similar efforts are planned for Cook County.

State election officials say they also have noticed an uptick of GOP inquiries about voter registrations in at least two other counties in central Illinois.

Republicans say they’re guarding against voter fraud and responding to Democratic maneuvering to boost their side’s turnout, including adopting same-day registration and putting several non-binding questions on the ballot to appeal to liberal and working-class voters, such as whether Illinois should tax millionaires. The GOP fears outdated voter rolls and a last-minute Democratic push to the polling stations will allow ineligible votes.

“We’re not trying to silence anyone’s vote,” said Aaron Del Mar, chairman of the Cook County Republican Party, noting Chicago’s ” vote early, vote often” reputation for past fraud. “Everyone should vote. It should only be once though.”

Illinois Democrats, in turn, fear the GOP “voter integrity” campaign could echo initiatives elsewhere aimed, they say, at making it difficult for minorities and other traditional Democrats to vote if they don’t have required identification or there’s any question about eligibility.

“We don’t interpret these efforts as anything other than voter suppression,” said Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman in Illinois for the Democratic Governors Association.

Republicans nationwide have devoted substantial energy to initiatives aimed at combatting voter fraud - including passing laws in nearly three dozen states requiring voters to show photo ID at polling places. Critics note repeated studies showing little evidence of widespread fraud.

Illinois does not require a photo ID to vote. At the polls, election authorities compare a voter’s signature to one on file in a registration book.

Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps elect Republicans at the state level nationwide, said the Illinois initiative is “not singularly unique” for a party focused on ensuring “fair and accurate elections.” But he said Illinois’ past reputation “gives a greater level of concern and urgency than many states.”

The Illinois effort could have an important impact in one of the nation’s hardest fought governor’s races - between Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn and the wealthy Republican challenging him, Bruce Rauner. Quinn won election in 2010 by less than 32,000 of 3.7 million total votes for governor, relying on heavy Cook County turnout.

The November count could be even closer, and both sides expect the race to be decided once again in Chicago area, where each party is appealing to minorities and moderate voters. Nationally, Republicans see the race as a prime opportunity to wrest away a Democratic governorship.

Combing through voter registrations is standard procedure for campaigns of both parties ahead of elections, as is county clerks’ systematic purging of rolls. But Illinois’ Republicans boast that this year they’re going well beyond past efforts.

State party officials wouldn’t comment on details of the initiative, saying only that they have contacted state officials and county clerks to ensure the election process is “transparent and adheres to the law.” But Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider told The (Bloomington) Pantagraph that GOP efforts will “blow your mind” and be “something you’ve never seen.”

Rauner told The Associated Press he has been told about the initiative but that the state party, not his campaign, is overseeing it and raising funds. State Sen. Jim Oberweis, a Republican dairy magnate challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, said his campaign was working on it with Rauner’s campaign.

Oberweis told AP that Republicans believed they could find up to 60,000 ineligible voters in Chicago. But a campaign spokesman later said that information was “essentially third hand” and “possibly incorrect,” and referred all questions to a state party spokesman.

A Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman said the agency’s cleanup identified about 50,000 “inactive” voters this year, a comparable number to previous years. They most likely represent people who’ve moved, but they can still vote if they show up with proof of address or by provisional ballot.

State Rep. Dwight Kay, a Republican facing re-election in the area east of St. Louis, said he’s working with the party on the voter initiatives because, he alleged, “there’s a potential here for wrongdoing” by Democrats.

“And we know Illinois doesn’t have the best record when it comes to fraud and corruption.”

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Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen .

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Associated Press writers Sara Burnett in Chicago and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.

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