Chicago — Question: Who really is the new governor-elect of Illinois?
Answer: Big Jim Thompson - sort of.
Don't dismiss the qualifier.
Legally there is no winner until the Illinois Board of Elections certifies one on Nov. 22. Though two-term Republican Gov. James Thompson emphatically insists he's won, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson III hasn't conceded.
The long, drawn-out postelection count gave Governor Thompson a slim edge of 5,500 votes among the 3.6 million cast.
But that margin even now is shifting as the last few counties formally certify their votes to the state board. Just a few days ago, for instance, Mr. Stevenson picked up an unexpected 620 votes during the official canvas of St. Clair County in downstate Illinois.
Stevenson says that once an official winner is declared, he will push for a statewide recount. It's a process expected to cost him $350,000-$500,000. But he notes that a shift of merely a quarter of one vote in each of Illinois's more than 11,000 precincts could make the difference.
Take 1964, for example. When Minnesota's GOP incumbent Gov. Elmer L. Andersen won the election there by 142 votes, Democratic challenger Karl Rolvaag asked for a recount, and eventually was declared the winner by a 91-vote margin.
''It was really a close vote, and a number of apparently honest mistakes were involved,'' says William Flanigan, a University of Minnesota political science professor, who notes that the Illinois victory margin is considerably larger. ''Legally it took a long time to get it settled, and the Republican incumbent remained in office until the spring session of the Legislature.''
Illinoisans now joke that it may take about that long to find out who will be their next governor. State law requires that disputed elections must be decided within 180 days.
''We're certainly hoping to resolve it faster,'' insists John Schmidt, a Chicago attorney who is heading up Stevenson's recount push. ''It may depend partly on our ability to get volunteer legal help . . . and on the attitude of the governor. If both sides are willing and eager, things can go a lot faster.''
But the Thompson camp has been sending out ''mixed signals'' when talk turns to a recount, says Stevenson campaign spokesman Rick Jasculca. ''They're all over the board on the recount issue.''
Legally, Stevenson must first file petitions in individual Illinois counties for a ''discovery'' recount, which rechecks votes in sample precincts.
''If we find anything at all in the way of error, a case could be made for a full statewide recount,'' Mr. Schmidt notes.
Ironically, candidate and newspaper polls never even hinted at the closeness of this particular Illinois race. All polls showed Thompson with a substantial lead. Chicago's surprise 3-to-1 turnout for Stevenson has been attributed in part to stepped-up voter registration in the city's black neighborhoods and in part to Cook County Democratic chairman Ed Vrdolyak's energetic ''Punch 10'' pitch to vote the straight Democratic ticket on the city's new computerized, punch-card voting machines.
Many observers around the country found it incredible that returns on the Illinois governor's race were still being counted three days after the polls closed.
Some expressed considerable skepticism over official explanations for the delay, which range from wet ballots that needed to be dry for counting to the mechanical failure of some voting machines and counting equipment.
Yet some veteran Chicago political analysts insist the Windy City's reputation for vote fraud is much exaggerated.
University of Illinois political scientist James Nowlan says, ''There could have been an overzealous precinct captain here or there, but I doubt there was any hanky-panky involved that was directed by significant officials.''
''This was generally a pretty fair election,'' says Dr. Milton Rakove, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. ''There are enough people watching - a cop at every precinct. The good precinct captains don't have to steal any votes. They know how to get their people out, and what the vote is going to be.''