Above all, elections should be free, fair and open, providing all eligible voters equal access to the ballot.
Illinois has passed a number of laws dedicated to this principle. Early voting begins 40 days before an election, and can be done in person or by mail. Voters may register in person, online, by mail, or when they renew their driver’s license or state ID – and Illinois imposes no voter ID laws that raise barriers to voting.
One local convenience, however, may be taken away. This week, DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder Doug Johnson suggested he may end the practice of running an Election Day registration center at the Northern Illinois University campus in the name of efficiency. Another at the DeKalb Township building could also be abandoned – Johnson said people made a big mess there in November –although a township official said this week that the county would still be welcome to register people there on Election Day.
Part of the clerk’s job should be to maximize voter turnout by making voting as accessible as possible to eligible voters – within reason.
In dollar terms, the expense of operating these site seems justifiable for the number of voters they serve. Johnson estimates that it costs 1% to 2% of his overall election budget of $250,000 to run them.
In the November 2016 election, 438 people registered and voted at the student center, according to reported figures. That was almost exactly 1% of the 43,784 votes cast in DeKalb County that year.
In November, 355 people registered and voted on Election Day at the student center, again almost 1% of the 36,439 turnout. Add in the 84 people who registered and voted at the township building, and the number rises to 1.2% of all ballots cast.
If operating the centers on Election Day costs about 1% of the budget and serves about 1% of the voting public, that would seem to be in balance.
Although these sites will serve any eligible voter, it is primarily college students who use them. Students are a transient population. They may not have lived here for years, and when they arrive, registering to vote probably is not top of mind for them.
Illinois law, however, says they are entitled to vote in DeKalb County if they choose, provided they are 18 or older and have lived here for 30 days before the election. A special registration center in another part of the county would likely see little use – the Sycamore site served the fewest Election Day voters – while the NIU campus location is clearly utilized, roughly in proportion to its estimated cost.
In light of that, it’s hard to see why it should be shut down.
Perhaps the inefficiency is in the long wait times when hundreds of people show up to register and vote. After the November election, several people complained about wait times at the student center, not only on Election Day but also during the early voting period.
From Johnson’s point of view, he’s going above and beyond to help people vote, and his reward is grief about how long it takes.
Perhaps a collaborative effort to improve the process would be a better alternative to ending on-campus registration on Election Day.
Those looking to mobilize the student vote should help people better understand the process – documents needed to register, available online and other means of registration, where they should vote if they already are registered – and the clerk’s office can use last year’s experience to help train future poll judges to ensure they operate as efficiently as possible.