By Mary Massingale Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – Intended to draw high numbers of college student voters, this election year’s pilot project of early voting on the state’s nine public university campuses has instead drawn high numbers of complaints about the extra money spent for relatively few votes.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Sheldon and other clerks in university counties objected to Senate Bill 3012 when lawmakers approved it, saying they didn’t have the money for what they expected to be little reward. Their prediction appears to have come true.
“It’s been a real, real challenge for us logistically in a time when we’re cutting budgets in all sorts of other ways,” Sheldon said. “So from that standpoint it’s been difficult.”
He said that of the 800 estimated early votes cast since Oct. 11 through Thursday, only about 74 of them were cast by voters 23 or younger.
The law was intended to get out the vote among college students in a mid-term election that so far has lacked the energy of the 2008 election that vaulted Barack Obama to the oval office.
Set to retire after Tuesday’s election, DeKalb County Clerk Sharon Holmes spent $25,000 on four additional voting machines and a couple of laptops, and their move onto campus in order to comply with the new mandate.
During the four days of early voting on the Northern Illinois University campus, election booths were set up in four dorms, along Greek row, and a couple of other places near the campus area. Of the 323 votes cast, about 95 were cast by students, Holmes said.
“So we’re looking at close to $25,000 — or maybe more — $25,000 for 323 votes,” she said. “Now do you think that’s worth it?”
Jackson County Clerk Larry Reinhardt shared the same frustration – but expected it. His office placed a polling place on the campus of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale four years ago, when early voting was first approved by the state.
“We had a very poor response four years ago the first time we did it, and for that reason we have not done it on campus since then,” Reinhardt said.
However, since Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Sheila Simon and Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney both teach at SIUC, he expected a better turnout.
“We were on campus five days and we may end with a couple hundred voters total in those five days – 200 to 300 – but four years from now, I bet we’ll be lucky to have 25 or 30 again,” Reinhardt said.
The pilot project of mandating an early voting site on campus lasts only for this 2010 general election. Election authorities must report by March 11 their vote totals and other findings to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Reinhardt said he most likely won’t recommend to continue the project, primarily because of finances.
“We had to secure about $7,000 additional funding from our board to comply with this requirement and that’s mainly because we had eliminated all off-site early voting this year due to budget cuts on the local level, as well as the reduction in funding for early voting at the state level," Reinhardt said. “Basically they cut our funds in half for early voting and then added requirements, mandates to it as well. So, we took a double hit on the budget.”
Holmes placed the blame on politics, particularly in an election year where Democratic lawmakers are struggling to retain control of the legislature by capturing votes — especially those of the traditionally liberal college student.
“We just have to dance to whatever tune they play in Springfield,” she said. “We never have a voice in anything.”
McDonough County Clerk Gretchen DeJaynes agrees but with a caveat. During the 2008 presidential election, she saw about 3,000 voter registrations from Western Illinois University’s campus. This year, that number is down to about 500.
“Do it when there’s interest but don’t make it mandatory for us to be there when there is no interest," DeJaynes said.