Wheaton students found themselves disappointed on Tuesday, March 15, when they were either turned away from Illinois primary voting locations or forced to wait long periods of time, due to what appeared to be a series of misunderstandings and inconsistencies at DuPage polling places.
A new law, the Illinois Grace Period Registration Law, enacted Jan. 10, 2015, allows for in-person same-day registration, provided they have been a resident of their Illinois precinct for at least 30 days prior to election day. This is especially important for college students, like at Wheaton College, where many students have not ever registered.
Sophomore Connor Jenkins was at the College Church Commons, where voting booths were set up, to help his friends vote. He said that it is “especially difficult” for students who go to university or college to vote, as some from out-of-state need to vote by absentee ballot and cannot walk to polls easily.
The Illinois Grace Period Registration Law was supposed to make it less difficult for some voters, like out-of-state students, to vote. However, the individuals running the College Church Commons voting area were turning away students from out-of-state and from in-state who were asking to register under the grace period.
Juniors Erica Elzey and Sarah Thompson both voted on Tuesday, but spoke of many Wheaton students who were turned down from voting. A group of local adults, Wheaton students and alumni who were working to increase voter awareness on campus, told The Record that, to their knowledge, nine students came to them, explaining that they were turned away from voting. According to other credible reports from students who stayed at the polls, the number of turned-away voters went as high as 40.
The main problem lay in the documents required for students to register. Among the legal documents required were two items of mail that listed the College’s mailing address as the mail-to address: 501 College Ave., Wheaton, IL. Unfortunately, students said they were denied registration because 501 College Ave. was not their residence address.
Jenkins said that his friends were required to display a piece of mail “that lists Fischer Hall or Mac Evans, if you live there.” The problem is that the post office does not deliver mail packages to any residence halls, nor is it supposed to deliver mail to any on-campus residences — all mail is directed to 501 College Ave.
Students received an email from vice president for student development Paul Chelsen at around 5 p.m., two hours before the polls closed on Tuesday. The email vouched for each student and listed their individual address at the college. Upon hearing about problems that voters were running into at the polls, Chelsen told The Record that housing services manager Elizabeth Clark created a database within hours of notification so that each student could receive a voucher.
Another roadblock students said they faced was a particularly unhelpful election official at the College Church Commons voting area.
Senior Gillian Christian told The Record in an email that when she arrived at the polling area with her legal documents, she encountered an official who laughed and gave her an “exasperated shrug” when she tried to explain her situation. She described her experience as “embarrassing, awkward and disappointing.” By the time the voucher was sent out to the campus, she was at work and was unable to register to cast her vote.
Students at the polls talked about a shifting standard over the course of the day. After some calls to regional officials, students said that the State Attorney General sent a representative to the College Church Commons voting area to clarify the terms of the new law with the on-site officials. Shortly after, students from out-of-state said they were able to register using pieces of mail with the 501 College Ave address on it. About an hour afterwards, however, students said that they were being barred again from voting using out-of-state IDs and pieces of mail with their 501 College Ave address. Meanwhile, students using the address voucher that the school provided reported being able to register.
Even though out-of-state students were able to register to vote thanks to the school’s voucher, the process took hours for some students. By around 6 p.m., 88 students waited their turn to register at College Church Commons with the emailed voucher, and students near the front of the line doubted that they would be able to register by the time the polls closed at 7 p.m.
At 6:09 p.m., an election judge emerged from the voting room where the 88 students were waiting and told them to drive to 421 N. County Farm Road, an eight-minute drive from College Church Commons. Students who left told The Record that they were able to register and vote there, but others said they needed to travel to other locations to vote. Some said that the entire process took up to 6 hours.
At least 46 students stayed in line at the College Church Commons, hoping to register before the polls closed. At 7 p.m., the election judge herded all the students into the voting room, where they were promised the opportunity to register and vote, if they waited their turn.
In the subsequent half hour, at least five students left without registering, saying that they did not know it would take as long as it did. One student who preferred not to be named estimated that, at the rate the line was moving, it would have taken nearly two more hours before he would have been allowed to vote. Many students were able to register and vote, but some said that they had to wait for hours before they completed the process. Senior Aseye Agamah, one of the students waiting in the line at College Church Commons, told The Record that she was able to vote after waiting for two and a half hours.
The officials at the College Church Commons declined to comment. When The Record called the DuPage County Election Commission on the day of publication, officials received the call but placed The Record on hold until the Commission closed for the day.
According to a government grace period registration information page online, not every polling place was designated to be a grace period registration area. It remains unclear whether or not College Church Commons was a designated grace period registration area, but representatives from the State Attorney General’s office came to College Church Commons and clarified that students could register to vote.
Several students, including Thompson, Elzey, Jenkins and College of DuPage alumnus Dan Schmidt ‘12, called an official voter hotline at different times during the day. In separate interviews with The Record, the students and alumnus said that officials called the actions at the voting booth “concerning,” and said that the on-site officials shouldn’t have done what they did.
According to one email correspondence with an attorney at the voter hotline, the judges at the polling place had the authority to swear in additional judges “if the work becomes too great.” The attorney said, “At a minimum, that is what they should have done.”
Several reports from students say that the election judge at the College Church Commons claimed that he requested help from the DuPage County Election Commission but did not receive it.
Chelsen told The Record that the change in the law and its consequences slipped his attention. “I honestly don’t know how it escaped our notice in terms of the impact,” he said.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the total number of students who were unable to vote on Tuesday, some thought the numbers were high enough for them to fear for the accuracy of the polls. Elzey told The Record that she is looking into filing a formal complaint with the DuPage County Election Commission about her experience at the voting polls.
Though the Illinois Grace Period Voting Registration Law is statewide legislation, Record editors found no reports from other precincts in Illinois about confusion over the grace period law.