Student leaders respond to county clerk’s decision to not grant more early voting locations

By The Daily Illini Staff Report

Illini Democrats, Illini Republicans and student leaders came together to speak out against Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten’s recent decision not to grant student leaders’ plea for the expansion of early voting polling places.

At a press conference at the Illini Union, students and local leaders made official statements denouncing Hulten’s decision.

The 2018 State Primary Election Day, which is March 20, is during this year’s spring break, which begins March 17.

The request to expand early voting polling places says the early voting period will be the only time many students will be able to vote locally.

Student leaders asked for more early voting locations to be added on campus, but Hulten denied their request. The only location on campus for early voting is Illini Union Room 213 from March 13-19.

“This very room is the polling place where (student voters) are expected to cram into,” said Sullivan Peterson-Quinn, junior in FAA and student senator. “It is a small room, connected to a narrow hallway, only accessible by one side of the building.”

Peterson-Quinn believes long lines will restrict voter access, like the 2016 election, noting that Hulten failed to predict the 4,207 percent increase in campus turnout.

Hulten said he does not anticipate early voting demand to exceed capacity at the Illini Union location.

A proposal for an early voting extension period was also denied.

Aishwarya Shekara, freshman in LAS and director of governmental affairs for the Illinois Student Government, outlined three reasons  on behalf of the student body for the county clerk to consider opening additional locations at the ARC and at PAR: failed voter turnout predictions in recent years, addition of same day voter registration this year and the fact that students were able to vote on Election Day in 2014.

“If the county clerk had used the same argument he is using to justify voting location consolidation between the 2014 midterm primary and the 2018 midterm primary, thousands of students would have been robbed of the right to participate and engage in the democratic process in 2016,” Shekara said.

Shekara emphasized there are more students on campus today than ever before, so the need to be prepared during voting season is vital.

The University’s League of Women Voters sponsored the press conference, and Tara Chattoraj, spokesperson and senior in LAS, said Hulten’s decision goes against the organization’s values to support and encourage participation of students in politics.

“Our organization is committed to expanding voter access through the expansion of early voting and increased access to automatic and online voter registration,” Chattoraj said.

Walter Lindwall, junior in LAS and president of Common Cause at UIUC, commended University administration’s efforts to improve voter information availability and voter outreach, including the Office of the Dean of Students and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Danita Brown-Young.

“Most students typically vote on Election Day. This will become substantially more difficult if they are not in the place they are registered while away from school,” Lindwall said.

Hulten said it is important to run the Illini Union location on the same schedule as other early voting locations to keep things equal and fair.

Josh Hartke, county board member representing District 6, said that Hulten argues it is out of his power to control early voting resources, but Hartke believes this is false.

“University administration and student leaders urged Gordy Hulten to come to the table and work with them, and he refused to cooperate with this institution,” Hartke said. “The county clerk is the only individual in the county clerk’s way. And while his intentions to limit unnecessary spending are in the right place, this is not unnecessary spending.”

While Jack Johnson, sophomore in Engineering and president of Illini Republicans, couldn’t attend the press conference, he issued a statement which was read at the press conference.

“I sincerely believe that voting is the cornerstone of democracy and the basis of freedom,” Johnson wrote. “Helping inform and educate the next generation of voters is how we ensure the growth and stability of our nation, and accordingly, the opportunity to vote is a right that should not be infringed.”

Johnson added that taking steps to rectify the decrease in voter turnout among eligible adults in recent years, especially young voters, starts with encouraging early voting in primary elections.

Anusha Thotakura, sophomore in LAS and president of Illini Democrats, said Hulten’s decision is “blatant voter suppression.”

“While the number of campus early vote locations seems like a non-issue on the surface level, it is a strategic choice to disenfranchise student voters,” Thotakura said. “In choosing to ignore the concerns of student leaders over the past month to open a new early vote location, Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten has decided that students being able to early vote on campus is not a priority.”

Thotakura confirmed  Hulten’s decline to work with student leaders on this matter.

“The Illini Democrats are proud to stand with the Illini Republicans in advocating for additional early voting resources,” Thotakura said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue; it’s about the foundations of a fair democracy where students are equally represented as voters and constituents.”

Gus Wood, Ph.D student in LAS and co-president of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, said he is disappointed with the Champaign County Clerk’s office. He said there are various other parts of Illinois, the Midwest and the country that provide early voting options for citizens.

“Yet the County Clerk’s office of Champaign refuses to provide a substantial reason to limit early voting to one location knowing that most of the student population will be traveling during the primaries next month,” Wood said. “For some of the students here, this is the first time to engage the electoral process, and for much of the student population, these are the formative years of their political ideology. Systematically shutting them out of the process at this time is potentially detrimental to their ideological development.”

Voters in Champaign County are encouraged to vote by mail if they are unable to vote early.

“Some might place the burden on the students, suggesting they should have voted by mail or made accommodation,” Lindwall said. “Our focus should not be blaming these students, but helping them find information and resources to accommodate the democratic process.”

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