Voting Suppression on Campus

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November 4, 2008 should have been a day of celebration
for Obama supporters, but for many who live in Champaign
County’s campus precincts, it was a day of frustration
and anger over unreasonable obstacles to their voting rights.
Less than three hours after the polls opened, I heard the
first complaint. Sarah, a 53-year old woman who happens
to live near campus, called me to find out where to complain
about voting irregularities. When she arrived at the
polling place she was told that she had to present a stateissued
photo identification before she would be given a
ballot. She questioned the election judge and pointed out
that she had been voting at the same polling place for the
last 5 years. Sarah has actually been registered to vote in
Champaign County for 35 years. Her signature hadn’t
changed, so she should have been handed a ballot. Still,
she was told no I.D., no ballot. Reluctantly, she showed
the judge her driver’s license, cast her votes and then
sought the opportunity to file an effective complaint.
Sarah told me later that when she complained to the
County Clerk’s office that morning, she was told that the
election judge should not have asked her for identification.
However, it appears her complaint to the Clerk’s
office did not result in any effort by that office to communicate
to the judges that they should correct the problem.
State and federal laws require only certain first-time
voters to provide identification when voting. Anyone who
uses “motor voter” to register to vote must vote in person
the first time he or she casts a ballot and at that time must
provide proof of address and proof of identity. The reason
is that the individual’s current address and identity were
not verified at the time of voter registration as they would
have been if the person had registered to vote for the first
time at the County Clerk’s office or with a deputy registrar.
After that first time, as most people reading this article
have experienced, a voter simply walks into the correct
polling place, signs an application for a ballot and is handed
one. No I.D. is required.
No doubt many people voting in the campus-area
precincts were first time voters who used motor voter to
register. But all were not. Some had voted in Champaign
County in the primary and others, particularly graduate
students, have been voting from the same address for several
years. Yet, election judges at some polling places were
treating all voters as if all were voting for the first time after
a motor voter registration. In the Illini Union, where two
precincts voted, a judge stood at the doorway to the
polling place announcing to each person who entered the
room that photo identification and proof of address were
required in order to vote.
Proof of address was the biggest problem. It is very common
for students to use a parent’s address on a driver’s
license to avoid the cost of getting a new license after moving
every year. The license proves identity but the first-time
voter would need something else to prove current address.
The Voter Guide published by Champaign County
Clerk Mark Shelden’s office listed as acceptable proof of
address “a current utility bill, bank statement, government
check, paycheck or other government document that
shows the name and address of the voter.” Remarkably, the
County Clerk’s office instructed judges to reject as proof of
address a government document showing the name and
address of the voter if that document was a voter registration
card issued by the County Clerk’s office.
I heard, second-hand, two arguments against recognizing
the voter registration card as valid proof of address.
Both are silly. One is that the information on the card was
provided by the voter so it could still be invalid. That
makes no sense because the card is mailed to the voter by
the County Clerk. If the voter does not really live at that
address, the card will be returned to the Clerk’s office
rather than delivered to the voter.
The other argument is that the voter could have moved
since the time the card was issued. The County Clerk’s
office prints a “date issued” on the card. If the card was
issued in October 2008, as many were, that’s as valid as
any address on a bank statement or utility bill. One voter
still had the card on the larger sheet mailed to him by the
County Clerk that showed a postmark less than 30 days
before election day. The election judge at the Illini Union
refused to accept that as proof of address.
All day, voters were turned away from the polls. Some
were first time voters, others were not. Some went home
to get more identification so they could vote and others
did not return.
Since the 1971 ratification of the 26th amendment to the
Constitution granting voting privileges to citizens age 18 or
older, students in Champaign County have faced voting
obstacles. In 1972, a federal lawsuit was necessary to compel
then-county-clerk Dennis Bing to allow students to register.
Because students tend to prefer Democratic party and
third-party candidates and the local County Clerk has
always been a Republican, the battles over voter registration
continued for several elections. Once students were finally
able to register without hassles, the strategy switched to preventing
those who registered from actually voting.
Responding to the November 4 fiasco, State Representative
Naomi Jakobsson and State Senator Mike Frerichs
have said they’ll introduce legislation to clarify the law
regarding proof of address on election day. The new law
needs to require acceptance of the voter registration card
as valid proof of address. What if the County Clerk
responds by suspending the practice of printing and mailing
voter registration cards? The new law must also mandate
that the County Clerk mail voter registration cards to
every voter no fewer than 10 days before election day.
The County Clerk has the power to thwart the constitutional
rights of thousands of people. We need better laws
to prevent abuse of power. For future elections we need
more progressive people to be trained to work as election
judges, especially in the campus precincts.

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