SYCAMORE – A DeKalb County official said he may get rid of the largest same-day voter registration center in the county to save on election costs, but not all community leaders are convinced.
DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder Douglas Johnson, R-Sycamore, announced at an election information meeting Tuesday that he is rethinking the cost-effectiveness of a same-day voter registration center at Northern Illinois University’s Holmes Student Center.
When reached for comment Wednesday, Johnson said he did not know how much DeKalb County would save by not continuing the NIU center in the 2020 general election or the cost to run the center before making his announcement Tuesday, but said he has been getting pushback from constituents who wonder why the county is spending money on something that is not mandated by law.
A same-day voter registration center is a place where DeKalb County voters who are registered in Illinois but not in the county can update their registration and vote on Election Day. In 2018, there were three such locations throughout the county.
“I’ve been getting a lot of pushback on why I’m even doing this,” Johnson said. “Some of the constituents in DeKalb County believe people should be voting in their home counties.”
He estimated that running the registration centers costs between 1% and 2% of the $250,000 his office budgets for elections each year.
Three same-day voter registration centers were implemented during the March 2016 primaries under no legal obligation for last-minute voters, he said. The other two centers have been located in the DeKalb Township offices and the DeKalb County Administration Building during past elections.
“We did it as a courtesy for people who didn’t know where their polling place was,” Johnson said.
Carolyn Morris, DeKalb’s 1st Ward alderman and Johnson’s 2018 Democratic opponent, said she does not understand why the NIU location may go when it has seen the largest voter turnout of the three.
“It’s obviously filling a desperate need,” Morris said. “Why would you eliminate that?”
Of the three centers, the NIU location saw the largest turnout, with 355 voters registered on Election Day 2018. The location at the DeKalb Township offices saw 84 voters, and 79 at the DeKalb County Administration Building in Sycamore, Johnson said.
During the 2016 general election, 438 voters turned out at the NIU location, 45 at the DeKalb Township location and 62 at the Sycamore location.
Morris said she sees Johnson’s rethinking of the NIU center as a partisan attempt to secure his next election by suppressing voters who have historically voted Democratic.
During the 2018 DeKalb County clerk election in the seven voting precincts that represent NIU students, 74% of the voters voted for Morris while 26% voted for Johnson.
Voters in the county’s other 58 precincts voted 55.5% for Johnson and 44.5% for Morris.
During the 2014 DeKalb County clerk election, voters in and around NIU voted 63% for Democratic candidate Trent Taylor and 37% for Johnson while other county voters voted 59.5% for Johnson and 40.5% for Taylor.
Johnson said he disagrees with the notion that his intentions are partisan.
“Some people have said it’s partisan of me to be removing the registration center, but I’m not required to do it,” Johnson said. “I’m actually helping one of the parties by implementing it. I think it’s a useless argument.”
Township center future
The DeKalb Township center may be gone next year, as well. Johnson said DeKalb Township will not invite the DeKalb County clerk’s office to hold a same-day voter registration center in their offices because of damage that occurred from overcrowding during the November 2018 election.
Johnson painted a scene of college students being bused to the center at the last minute because of long waits at the NIU center, leaving food on the carpets and footprints on the walls – and a $700 bill the county had to foot.
DeKalb Township Highway Commissioner Craig Smith said that the Township offices were left in such a state, but he said he is willing to host another same-day registration center.
“I’m not going to allow one incident to reflect on the taxpayers and residents of DeKalb,” Smith said.