CHAMPAIGN — Two local Democratic state lawmakers say they will promote legislation next spring to clarify in-person "grace period" voting rules in the state.
The measure, said Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, and Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, is prompted by what Frerichs said are obstacles to more convenient voting that have been erected by Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten.
Although most other Illinois jurisdictions allow same-day voting during the state's pre-election grace period, Hulten requires such voters to apply for an absentee ballot, wait for the application to be mailed to them, then return the application to the county clerk and wait for an absentee ballot to be mailed back — a process that could take several days.
Hulten, a Republican, said the process treats all voters equally and helps discourage voter fraud. Some Democrats, including Hulten's election opponent, Urbana Alderman Charlie Smyth, said it discourages and suppresses voting.
Hulten said Thursday he would "love to work with them on finding a solution so that we can tighten up the law and provide better service to voters. I think we can address everybody's concerns pretty easily."
He said he doesn't like Illinois' grace period law "because of the way it's written. It attempts to create a special set of circumstances for voters who wait until the last moment to register to vote or to update their registration. What we'd like to do is treat them the way we treat everyone else but give them maximum convenience. Let them vote but let us hold onto the ballot to make sure they haven't voted somewhere else and make sure they don't have a duplicate registration somewhere else."
Frerichs stopped short of accusing Hulten of suppressing the vote, "but I think what he's doing is putting some more obstacles in the way that some people may not be able to follow through and have their vote cast."
"I applaud efforts to stop voter fraud," Frerichs said at a news conference at the county Democratic Party headquarters in Champaign. "But if suppressing voter fraud means that for the very few examples out there, there will be scores or hundreds of people turned away, I don't think that's the right thing to do."
Jakobsson said she would propose legislation "to close these loopholes so that when people want to vote they're not going to be disenfranchised from this great opportunity."
"We've worked to try to get more early voting and grace period voting, and I think we've seen that unfortunately we've left a loophole, we've left a little bit of space there in order to allow our county clerk to mail these ballots," said Frerichs. "I don't think it was our intent or the intent of the Legislature that if someone comes in and can show proof of ID, and they can show proof that they're able to be registered here, they should be able to vote and they should be able to vote a full ballot, not just a federal ballot."
Hulten has the discretion to impose the extra steps, he said, and Frerichs said he wasn't accusing the clerk of wrongdoing.
"No one here is alleging anything illegal is being done, but the county clerk is saying that he wants to make sure there isn't voter fraud," said Frerichs. "Our fear has been that anyone who is paying attention to electoral reforms throughout the country over the last year, you have secretaries of state and legislatures passing what they call reform in order to do away with voter fraud, something that has just not been proven, something that they have found maybe 10 verified cases in the last 12 years or so around this country."
Preventing voter fraud isn't his primary motivation, Hulten said.
"We do grace period voting the way we do because we are committed to treating every voter who registers in Champaign County the same, whether they register in August or whether they register a week before the election."
Hulten, Frerichs and Jakobsson had worked earlier this year on legislation aimed at increasing early-voting opportunities in Champaign County. Jakobsson was asked if she was disappointed about the grace period voting dispute in Champaign County.
"Not only are we disappointed, but if an individual is not allowed to vote, that individual is going to be greatly disappointed," she said.
Frerichs and Jakobsson are up for re-election on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, David Collier, an Urbana resident who said last week he attempted to register to vote at the county clerk's office, said Thursday that he finally received the absentee-voter application on Wednesday, a full week after requesting it.
Now he has to wait for a ballot to arrive in the mail.
"Hopefully it will be here, but it took a week last time for me to get my last item of mail. If it does come, it's going to be pretty close (to the Election Day deadline)," Collier said.
Under state law his ballot will have to be postmarked by Nov. 5 or he can return it in person to the county clerk's office on Nov. 6, Election Day.
"We mail everything out the same day we get it back here. So the delay is not on our end," Hulten said. "I personally have run mail to the post office at 10 o'clock or midnight every day for the last seven or eight years, just to make sure we are running everything as efficiently as possible."
He said "it's not my choice for a voter to wait until seven days before the election, it's the voter's choice. There are 140,000 people in Champaign County who registered before October 9th. It's their choice to wait until the last possible moment."