NIU voter turnout highest in decade; long lines cause contention
DeKALB – Voters in DeKalb County Precinct 2, which primarily serves Northern Illinois University students, amassed the highest turnout in a decade during Tuesday’s midterm elections, a feat that is causing some contention among students, Democrats and the county clerk’s office.
The historically high midterm voter turnout – at 89 percent, or nearly 1,000 voters compared with 14 percent, or 78 voters during 2014’s midterms – meant students waited in line for hours to register the same day and vote. Local Democrats are crying foul at the waiting times, while county clerk officials say lines are business as usual.
“I was in line about a half-hour [at the NIU Holmes Student Center], and had only moved 10 feet, but then a lady came through telling everyone that any previously registered voters in the state of Illinois were not able to re-register and vote at the student center,” said graduate student Kevin Barton, 23, of Collinsville. Barton’s friend urged him to go back to the polls and try again, because the information he had been given was wrong.
“I went back and ended up waiting for another two hours to vote,” Barton said. “When I got into the poll room, they had run out of ballots and had to print more, which took 30 more minutes.”
NIU students were able to vote early, as well as vote and register the same day at the Holmes Student Center and the Barsema Alumni and Visitor’s Center. Since same-day voter registration was implemented statewide in 2014, voter turnout in the precinct has risen exponentially.
During the 2008 presidential election, DeKalb 2 – a heavily Democratic precinct – recorded a 65 percent voter turnout, with 272 votes. Then, in 2010’s midterms, the numbers dropped back down to a 63 percent turnout, with 41 votes. In 2012’s presidential race, the precinct recorded a 58 percent voter turnout, with 633 votes. The 2016 presidential election held a 66 percent voter turnout rate, with 738 votes.
Xavier Mata, 22, a senior public health major from Chicago, also registered the day of the election.
“I waited about 2½ hours to vote at the Holmes Student Center,” Mata said. “I went right after my class ended at 2:50 p.m. and wasn’t out until about 5:30 p.m.”
Students contend the county should provide more polling places to alleviate voter congestion on campus.
Doug Johnson, who was re-elected for a second term as county clerk and recorder, said election officials “went way beyond the call of duty and law to accommodate students,” and that “it’s not something we have to do.”
NIU Student Association legislative director Ian Pearson said despite concentrated efforts by the student government to spread voter awareness, lines still were congested.
“We partnered with Illinois Public Interest Research Group to do early vote and ‘Get out the Vote’ efforts,” said Pearson, 20, a junior political science and nonprofit and NGO double-major from Rockford. “Around 2 p.m. [Tuesday], there were lines out of the [Holmes Student Center] which wrapped around the entire second floor.”
Pearson said that “as college students tend to do,” some waited until the last minute to vote, but said Tuesday’s lines would have been worse if there had not been an increase in NIU early voter turnout.
The lines for early voting at the Holmes Student Center were long as well, said Tristan Martin, 22, a senior majoring in political science who commutes from Somonauk.
Martin thought it would be easiest to vote at NIU’s early voting location, but tried three different days because he encountered lines every day. He ended up voting Tuesday morning in Somonauk because the wait at NIU was too long.
“I went [to the Holmes Student Center] the Thursday, Friday and Monday before the election, and every time, the line extended out of the room, around the corner and down the hall,” Martin said.
A trio of Democratic candidates who fell short in their election bids, Court Schuett, Carolyn Morris and Liliana Orozco, were on campus – “as citizens” Orozco said, to encourage voter turnout – and expressed concern that NIU polling congestion was emblematic of voter suppression.
“When you know that, however, many students are living on campus and all might change their registration on Election Day and you don’t provide enough staff at that location to at least keep the wait down to 30 minutes, that is plain-and-simple systemic voter suppression,” Morris said.
“Wait times are overexaggerated, and just the Democrats trying to blow up a story,” Johnson said.
Johnson said between four and
six election judges were on hand at the NIU polling places. An election judge who was at the Holmes Student Center declined to comment.
“I don’t think the lines at voting locations during election times are unusual,” Johnson said. “DeKalb County had lines during the  presidential election, and nobody bellyached on that one.”