URBANA – There's a chance the Champaign County Board and the county's top election official might be headed to court in a dispute over an early-voting site on the University of Illinois campus.
A state law passed this spring calls for a campus registration and pilot voting program at nine public universities in Illinois, including the UI.
"Each public university shall make the space available in a high traffic area for, and cooperate and coordinate with the appropriate election authority in, the implementation of this Section," the law says.
A number of county board Democrats – as well as several members of the Illini Democrats and the UI student senate – said at Tuesday night's committee of the whole meeting that they want the UI's early-voting site at the Illini Union.
But County Clerk Mark Shelden said that for a number of reasons the Union is an inferior site. And he said he hopes to sign a lease within a few days to place the early-voting site in a vacant storefront at 700 S. Gregory St., U, about a half-mile from the Union.
The building, known as Gregory Place, is owned by JSM Development but is on UI property. Renting it would cost the county $800, Shelden said.
Board Chairman C. Pius Weibel said Tuesday that the board's attorney believes state law gives the county board authority to establish polling places.
But Shelden told the board another state law gives the county clerk the power to choose early-voting sites.
"This is our decision," he said. "There's no authority on the county board."
Later, outside the board meeting, he said he would not agree to use the Pine Lounge of the Illini Union, the room offered by UI officials.
"I'm just not going to do it," he said. "They'd have to sue me. But I'd rather that not happen. We're going to have another location."
Weibel and Champaign Democrat Michael Richards both said Wednesday that they believe the Union is a better location, but said they weren't eager to take Shelden to court.
"I'm not interested in pursuing this in court," Weibel said. "I'd say some Democrats, yes, might want to go to court. I don't think it's worthwhile."
"I'm not itching to get in a legal battle with our own clerk," Richards said. "But we have heard the president of the Illinois Senate (John Cullerton) say that he didn't think that Gregory Place was compliant. Perhaps the Illinois Senate would do it."
Urbana Democrat Sam Smucker said he hoped Shelden could be persuaded to use the Union.
"You run such a competent and I believe well-run office that is very efficient," Smucker said. "But when you talk about putting a polling place in the Illini Union, you sound like you've never done this before. And so for me, I would encourage you to rethink this Illini Union plan. There seems to be a lot of good will out there to make this happen. I would be shocked, given your track record as an administrator, that you wouldn't be able to do this in an efficient and competent manner."
The Pine Lounge was used on Election Day in 2008, Shelden acknowledged, but that was an emergency.
"We didn't have a location and we begged and actually had some difficulty getting in, but we begged the Illini Union to let us in and they agreed to do it on an emergency basis," he said.
Shelden said the Union is inappropriate because it is a center of political activity, and politicking is prohibited within 100 feet of a polling place in Illinois. Further, the Union is inaccessible to most voters and presents administrative difficulties for his office.
"It's a hard place for the average voter who is not on campus to get to," he said. "And it's been made pretty clear in the statute that this is to be a voting location that is accessible to everybody in Champaign County."
Urbana Democrat Tom Betz criticized Shelden for "stubborn foolishness."
"If I was the county clerk, I would embrace this and say, 'Yes, I want all the voting I can get. I want it at the Illini Union and I'm going to have a big ceremony opening up the early-voting center.'
"Then I'd make sure I had 25 students lined up and ready to vote, with the community people and everybody else. My philosophy is you take lemons and turn them into lemonade. That's politics. I'd be Mr. Drumbeat for early voting. But you can't do that with this place he wants."