URBANA — Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten will print advisory referendums on City of Champaign Township and Cunningham Township ballots this November despite earlier questions about their appropriateness.
Voters in each township approved the ballot questions at their respective town hall meetings this spring. One question was set to appear on City of Champaign Township ballots and two were approved to be printed on Cunningham Township ballots.
Except for a few precincts, the borders of each township coincide with the borders of the cities of Champaign and Urbana.
One of the questions, which would appear on ballots in both townships, essentially asks voters if they support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would effectively undo a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations have a First Amendment right to donate unlimited amounts of money to political causes.
The other, which will appear only on Cunningham Township ballots in Urbana, asks if voters think the owners of privately owned public spaces should be required by city ordinance to allow "polite, non-disruptive free political speech."
But members of both town boards and Hulten had concerns about the wording of the questions. They do not conform with the requirements of the Election Code of Illinois in that "they are not phrased as questions but rather as a series of editorial statements, and do not lend themselves to the standard 'yes' or 'no' responses required for ballot questions," according to a press release from the county clerk's office.
In August, Hulten said he needed to research whether or not he had the authority to reject non-conforming ballot questions approved for publication by township voters. He said he has spent the past weeks talking to the Illinois State Board of Elections, attorneys in Champaign County and State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who advises the county on legal matters.
He said he also looked for similar cases in Champaign County history or in other comparable Illinois counties.
"Didn't find anything," Hulten said. "And so there really wasn't a court case that we could rely on, there wasn't really a precedent that we could rely on."
Ultimately, he decided that the county clerk does have the authority to reject non-conforming filings for ballot questions, just as he has the authority to reject inadequate filings by potential candidates to get on the ballot. But in this case, he is choosing not to use it.
"At the end of the day, these are non-binding advisory questions," Hulten said. "They are going to cause some confusion for voters. They are not going to cause any lasting harm or damage to the ballot."
But he reiterated that the county clerk can reject ballot questions that do not meet statutory requirements.
"We choose not to reject this one," he said. "I'd like to make that clear because I'm hoping that we never have to revisit this again."
In an extreme hypothetical example, if somebody were to submit a ballot question that was simply a string of profanities, "We would certainly reject that one," Hulten said.