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Hulten moves slowly on holding grace period voter registration on campus

Same-day grace period voter registration, which was signed into law on July 1, 2014 by Governor Pat Quinn, allows Illinois residents to register to vote and cast a ballot on election day.

The goal of grace period voter registration is to make voting easier and more accessible. Under the new law, all residents are able to cast a ballot, even if they forgot to register to vote or update their current address information in advance.

In Champaign-Urbana, one population stands to substantially benefit from this new law: the ~35,000 students who are eligible to vote. Students move frequently and may forget to update their voter registration information in advance, which contributes to low student voter turnout. In theory, the new law allows U of I students to register to vote and to cast a ballot on the same day. 

But in practice, taking advantage of the benefits of this law in Champaign-Urbana presents a challenge to those without reliable transportation, including students. This is because currently, grace period voter registration is only available at one location, the Brookens Administration Center in east Urbana. This location is nearly three miles from the Illini Union on campus. Traveling to Brookens by bus could take potential voters around forty minutes one way (map above).

Student body president Mitch Dickey has been vocal about the reasons why having grace period voter registration exclusively in Brookens is a problem.

“One of the things that I’ve learned from the big voter registration campaign we put on this year,” said Dickey, “is that people aren’t planning ahead. Having same-day voter registration on campus would help students who were caught up in midterms and writing papers a month ago actually get out to vote and voice their opinions in the election.”

Dickey has reached out to Hulten several times, urging him to make grace period voter registration available on campus. But he says it took him a long time to get a response. He says that his letter, phone messages, and in-person visit to the Champaign County Clerk’s office had no effect until the media began reporting on Hulten’s silence.

“I sent him a letter about two and a half weeks ago,” said Dickey. “Until Monday, I had no response from him. I gave him a week to respond by email or phone after receiving my letter, but I didn’t hear anything back. After a week, I began leaving messages on his office voicemail. I also went to his office and talked to his chief of staff, who took my name and number. Ironically, Hulten was at the Illini Union when I stopped by his office, and when I learned where he was, I told his chief of staff that I was going to go look for Hulten there. But when we arrived, we were told he had ‘fled’ just a few minutes ago. I don’t know the actual reason why he left, but I thought that was funny language. I called his office again the next day too, but after all the runaround, I decided to take to social media. I felt I gave him adequate time to respond to me. On Monday, when the media picked up the story, he got back to me and said he would look into it.”

Despite Hulten’s response, Dickey says that he still feels like he’s getting the runaround. “I’ve learned that other people are trying to push him on this as well. From my understanding, there are no barriers to having grace period voter registration at the Illini Union. It’s just whether he wants to have it there or not. We’re hoping media pressure will work. We’ll see what happens.”

Yesterday, Hulten wrote in an email to me:

“[W]e are researching whether we have the authority to conduct grace period registration and voting at the Union on Election Day, and if we have the legal authority, what procedures we need to develop to do so. This is something we’d like to do if legal and possible.”

But according to attorney Matt Duco, Hulten already knows that holding grace period voter registration on campus is legal and that it will be implemented elsewhere in the state on November 4th.

“Gordy Hulten is allowed to do this. It is solely within the county clerk’s decision. For instance, grace period voter registration is happening on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. There are also other clerks around the state who are holding grace period voter registration outside of their main offices. This is something that election authorities around the state are doing. Mr. Hulten knows it’s legal. I talked to him about this a long time ago. But it is in his discretion, so he can decide whether he wants to do it or not.”

Moreover, Duco said that Hulten already has the resources he needs at the Illini Union to hold grace period voter registration at the Illini Union without further cost to the county. 

“The county clerk is already required to have in-person absentee voting at the Illini Union. That means he has to have a polling location at the Illini Union that allows anyone from Champaign County to vote there. So he has all the staff and equipment there already. So the only question is if he’ll let people update their voting information or register to vote there as well. He’s already required to have the entire apparatus he would need to have there, and there would be no additional cost to allow grace period voter registration as well.”

A coalition of students and voting rights activists, including RISE, Illinois Student Senate, the Illini Voter Coalition, and League of Women Voters – Champaign County Student Unit, has put together a petition to urge Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten to allow grace period voter registration on campus.

Also, according to Dickey, several student groups will be holding a press conference on Thursday in conjunction with the mayors of Champaign and Urbana to draw attention to this issue. He says he hopes the press conference will put pressure on Hulten to hold grace period voter registration at the Illini Union.

“There are a lot of reasons why the Illini Union would be the perfect place to have grace period voter registration,” said Dickey. “Thousands of people walk through there every day. It’s just a matter of getting Gordy Hulten to agree.”

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