URBANA — What was a partisan controversy two years ago appears to be a bipartisan source of cooperation this year.
State Sen. Mike Frerichs, a Democrat, and Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten, a Republican, announced Thursday that Champaign County voters will be able to take part in early voting at eight different sites before this fall's general election.
It's a far cry from two years ago, when Hulten's predecessor, County Clerk Mark Shelden, fought efforts to implement an early-voting center at the University of Illinois. The facility was required under a pilot program authorized by the Legislature in a college campus early-voting bill pushed by Frerichs.
Shelden had refused to open an early-voting center in the Illini Union, although the space had been offered to the county by UI officials. He declined the offer, saying that the space was inappropriate because it was prone to electioneering. Both the College Democrats and College Republicans had offices in the building, and it is a center of political activity, Shelden claimed. State law prohibits politicking within 100 feet of a polling place.
Shelden ended up leasing a vacant storefront at Gregory Place, 700 S. Gregory St., U, as the campus area early-voting site. The property was owned by JSM Development, whose principals included the late Steve Hartman, former chairman of the Champaign County Republican Party.
This year, though, an early-voting center in the Union is perfectly fine with Hulten.
"I don't know exactly what my predecessor's concerns were, but we have concerns with any new voting location — accessibility, security, visibility, the ability to control electioneering. We had to be able to address those concerns with every new location, not just with the Illini Union. We don't want any of these locations to be open to any of those charges," Hulten said. "We've had a number of conversations with student government leaders, with the Illini Union staff, with the political parties on campus and told them we have concerns about electioneering. They have pledged to us that they will make sure that electioneering is not an issue at this location."
The Illini Union site will be in room 317, Hulten said, which is now used as a meeting room.
The room and the voting machines inside can be secured every night, and election judges at the site will have parking nearby.
"All of our concerns have been addressed," Hulten said.
Voters registered in any of 20 campus-area precincts will be able to vote early at the Union.
Other early-voting sites in the county this fall will be:
— The county clerk's office at the Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., U. Voters in any of the county's 118 precincts will be able to vote at Brookens.
— The Spalding Recreation Center in north Champaign. Voters in 18 City of Champaign precincts, plus two suburban Champaign townships will be able to vote there.
— The Meadowbrook Community Church in southwest Champaign, providing early voting for 16 City of Champaign precincts, plus four precincts in Champaign Township.
— The Grace Church in Mahomet, the site for 20 precincts in northwest Champaign County.
— The Rantoul Recreation Center, the location for 20 precincts in Rantoul and northeast Champaign County.
— The St. Joseph Village Annex, the site for 10 precincts in eastern Champaign County including residents of St. Joseph, Ogden, Royal, Sidney, Broadlands and Longview.
— The Tolono Public Library, for 10 precincts in southern and southwestern Champaign County including Philo, Tolono, Pesotum, Ivesdale and Sadorus.
Because of legislation sent to Gov. Pat Quinn, it's uncertain when early voting will begin this fall, Hulten said. It will be either Oct. 15 to Nov. 1 or Oct. 22 to Nov. 3.
Hours at the sites will vary, Hulten said.
The clerk said he hopes as many as 12.5 percent to 15 percent of the county's voters this fall make use of early voting.
"Madison County gets 21 or 22 percent routinely, and they run 10 locations plus their county clerk's office," he said.
The project can be undertaken without additional costs, Hulten said. All of the voting sites have been donated and no additional equipment is required.
"Our big expense will be election judges to staff the locations. We anticipate we can operates those locations ... for less than $20,000 for the entire countywide program," he said. "Our goal is to continue to have a program like this for every future countywide election."
If early-voting numbers are driven up enough, he said, it might allow for fewer judges on Election Day, plus shorter lines at polling places.
"Early voting is just another offshoot of the modernization of elections that we've seen across the country since the 2000 presidential election," Hulten said.
Hulten thanked Frerichs and state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, for working with him and for amending an election bill this spring to give the county the flexibility to offer early voting at eight sites instead of just the campus location.
"I can't thank them enough. It's an excellent example of Republicans and Democrats working together to get something done that makes a lot of sense, that allows us to serve the voters of Champaign County more efficiently," he said.