A few days before the mayoral election earlier this month, I visited the Champaign County voter registration page to check what identification one of my unregistered friends would need to register to vote. She was intimidated by the administrative details of getting registered, and I was trying to show her that is was relatively easy.
I was surprised, confused, and then angry to see a bold red headline stating that voter registration for the upcoming election was closed. The site (screenshot above) was just simply not true; there was still plenty of time. In fact, constituents are allowed to register in person the day of the election, up until the polls close.
This was also true of the presidential election last November, and it will be true for the mid-term elections in a year and a half. Yet, when I looked up voter registration information on Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten's homepage (the page that the vast majority of visitors land on), that extremely important information was nowhere to be found. The impression I got from the homepage was that all forms of registration were closed.
I figured this might be a mistake and continued further down the webpage to get the information I needed. I scrolled to the "In-Person Voter Registration Form" section, where the information stated that voter registration closes 28 days prior to an election, and opens again two days after. Apparently, someone visiting the webpage to figure out how to get registered could even double check and still be under an incorrect assumption that would lead them to not vote, even though they wanted to.
What is true is that online registration is closed 28 days prior to an election. If a potential voter were to continue scrolling, past the attention grabbing headline saying voter registration is closed and past the "In Person Voter Registration Form" section saying the same thing, all the way down to the very bottom of the long page, the last section is "Grace Period Registration and Voting." (See Below)
This section is one line, which has one link that redirects to the Grace Period page. The Grace Period page explains that you can register in person to vote up until 7pm on Election Day. I want to put it on a billboard on Neil St., yell it from that almost-hill top in the Arboretum, or do something to circumvent the blatant misinformation so that everyone knows his or her voting registration rights. The County Clerk’s voting registration page is the main source of information that our community has about how to get registered to vote, and it is very clearly not doing its job.
Why would there be so much information implying that people who have not registered to vote yet cannot do it last minute, when they can? It is possible that the since the Grace Period came about after the website was established, it was easier to integrate by adding a section at the end and leaving the rest of the page as it was.
Still, the Grace Period was added by 2014, giving the Clerk’s office three years to adjust the website to inform voters more honestly, and they have not. It is also possible that the County Clerk’s office thinks this presentation is the most organized, efficient way to get the information to voters.
While many of the above reasons are possible, it is also possible that the setup is deliberate. Voters who register during the grace period could likely be people who are not already very involved in politics or aren’t avidly following local elections in advance of the deadline. Voters who utilize grace period voting could be people who have more trouble finding time or transportation to get to the polls, leaving them unregistered from a previous election.
Additionally, it is no secret that, especially in a college town, getting out the vote leans Democrat. Gordy Hulten is a Republican in a county with a massive young, Democratic voter base – if a ton of students register to vote here in Champaign County. Setting up the website for voter information in a way that would result in voter suppression, especially suppression of voters who are more likely to register last minute (like students, for example), would probably work in favor of the Republican candidates for elections and ballot measures that Republicans tend to support.
This could impact everything from school board elections to the 2018 congressional races. It may have made a difference in the fairly close vote on the nursing home referendum a few weeks ago, and if the registration information is not corrected we will risk the results of many future votes being skewed as well.
I reached out to Gordy Hulten for comment on the set-up of his website. He explained that regular registration and Grace Period registration are treated separately in the election code, and his website reflects that. He pointed out that other websites that combine the information more than his come across as confusing and contradictory. He says his office is re-evaluating their set-up and hoping to come up with something better when they re-do their website this summer.
“The election code treats "voter registration" separately from "grace period registration and voting" and our website does so also, though we are re-evaluating that. For example, in 10 ILCS 5/4-8, it says explicitly: "For the purposes of this Section, a registration period is closed 27 days before the date of any regular or special election. However, recent revisions to other sections of statue (which I've supported) have changed the deadlines for online voter registration (now closes 16 days prior) and grace period registration and voting (which now runs through 7PM) on Election Day. On our website, we've got a page that covers grace period here: https://www.champaigncountyclerk.com/elections/grace_period.php.
When we update our website this summer, we'll try to present information about opportunities for voter registration in a way that is clearer for voters but still accurately reflects current Illinois law. We are looking at how other jurisdictions around Illinois present the information. The examples that I've seen where all options are provided to a voter on one page, the information can be confusing and appear contradictory.”
Hulten raises unquestionably valid points. His website is not the only County Clerk page in Illinois that has sentences like “voter registration closes 28 days prior to an election,” in fact every other Illinois County Clerk page I looked at contained a sentence along those lines.
The difference was that these websites usually quickly followed with a sentence about Grace Period voting or a fairly visible section about Grace Period voting. Hulten stated that he finds this set-up confusing and contradictory, and I don’t disagree with him, but it’s very hard to imagine that his incorrect message that all registration is closed is any better. Clarity in communication is important, but it’s worse than useless if it’s communicating the wrong thing.
Whether it's well-intentioned, lazy, or diabolical, the misleading information voters are receiving from the Champaign County Clerk's webpage is harming the participation of our community in local and national politics. I can be sympathetic to the difficulty of clearly messaging registration options to voters when the election code itself is confusing, but I can also ask for better from one of my elected officials.
The County Clerk’s office may already be in the process of planning to improve the website this summer, but it’s worth keeping an eye on to see if the problem actually gets solved. Hulten says he supports measures that make it easier for people to vote, so I hope that shows in his website renovation. Voter suppression is a national problem, and pressuring Hulten to alter his website to effectively convey the option of Grace Period voting is a way that we can strengthen the voice of our community. If that doesn’t work maybe I’ll look into taking out that billboard.