Politics

Illinois College Students Say They Were Threatened With Arrest And Turned Away From The Polls

CREDIT: Moriah Gonzalez

Wheaton College student Melissa Gray and her brother organized voter information efforts on the college campus.

Students at Wheaton College outside Chicago, Illinois were looking forward to voting — many for the first time — in last Tuesday’s presidential primary. But instead of exercising their constitutional right, many students were threatened, intimidated, and turned away from the polls without a reasonable explanation.

One polling location near the college campus did not allow hundreds of students to register to vote on Tuesday, despite the state’s new same-day registration law, because one election judge claimed it would take too much time to register all of them. Others were turned away because they did not have Illinois identification, or because of confusion about polling locations. One poll worker threatened to arrest students who were waiting in a long line to be registered toward the end of the day.

“What was really frustrating to me was that it just seemed like it was honestly intentional voter suppression,” Moriah Gonzalez, a senior at Wheaton College, told ThinkProgress.

Gonzalez said she and a number of other students were involved in efforts to encourage students to get out and vote — and register to vote — on Election Day. Illinois’ new “grace period” registration law allows voters to register and vote on the same day, at their polling locations.

“We were informing students and they were getting really excited about it,” she said. “On voting day we made a big push, and students started coming out. They were really, really excited to register and vote.”

Gonzalez said it was particularly noteworthy that students of many political leanings were coming together for this shared goal in a town like Wheaton, which she describes as “polarizing and evangelical.”

But some students say that when they showed up at the polling location within walking distance of their campus, election judge David Liddy wouldn’t allow them to register. Some were denied because Illinois law requires voters to provide proof of their physical address, but they only had documents with their P.O boxes, where they receive mail on campus. Though Liddy had the right to deny these students until they provided proof of their physical address, Gonzalez said she saw 35 to 40 students turned away for this reason without a full explanation of the documentation they would need in order to register.

“This was happening throughout the course of the day,” Gonzalez said. “Students were frustrated.”

According to a video captured by one student, Liddy laughed at the fact that students were being turned away.

“If I’m unable to register you all today, first of all, I want to thank you all for being interested and involved in voting,” Liddy told a group of students gathered at the polling place. “Plus 1,000. Minus 10,000 for waiting until the last minute to do it.”

“He was really reprimanding the students,” Gonzalez said.

But students say he denied others who did not have Illinois ID cards, even though Illinois law allows voters to register with out-of-state ID.

Drew Chambers, a Wheaton student from Virginia, told ThinkProgress that Liddy denied his attempt to register with his pay stub, bank statement, student ID, and license — sufficient identification under Illinois law.

“Liddy quickly asked me what state my license was issued in and when I said Virginia, he promptly told me that he would not register me, that I was a resident of Virginia, and to go vote there,” Chambers said in an email. “He was visibly flustered and asked me, ‘Who’s telling you these things? You can’t vote here!’ When I said that I had researched the situation myself and heard from student groups on campus and that it was my right to register in my home state or my college state, he replied, ‘Oh, so it’s just a rumor flitting around campus? It’s just gossip. Let me tell you, it’s not true.'”

Chambers said that when he pressed Liddy and told him he would not be voting in Virginia, where the presidential primary had already occurred, Liddy again shot down his effort to register.

“He said, “Unless you can show me an Illinois license, you aren’t a resident, you can’t vote, and I cannot register you. And now I have to tell all your friends who are just as wrong, so have a good day,'” Liddy said, according to Chambers.

Hannah Garringer, a sophomore at Wheaton College from Wisconsin, also told ThinkProgress that Liddy denied her attempt to register Tuesday morning because she did not have an Illinois state ID. “I also talked to other students that this had been happening to and realized that we had been illegally refused registration,” she said.

Garringer, like many other students, then received an email from the college with verification of her dorm address and clarification that students could vote in Illinois, where they attend school. The DuPage County Election Commission also told students that one proof of identity and proof of Illinois address is sufficient to register to vote. But when Garringer returned to the polling place Tuesday evening with the required identification information, she was told she could not be registered because the line was too long.

“I don’t remember [Liddy’s] exact words, but he said that he was understaffed and that election officials were not responding to his phone calls for reinforcement,” she said. “He then said that if we wanted to vote, he could not register us and we needed to go to the DuPage Election Commissioner’s office. He said he was sorry but that we needed to leave.”

Gonzalez said at that point, there was still more than hour until the polls closed. “The election judge said ‘absolutely not,'” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t have enough time to process all of you.'”

Caitlin McNamara, a 25-year old senior at Wheaton College, said that a man working the line at the polling location “clearly had a terribly long day” because he threatened to arrest all of the Wheaton College students standing in line, “not making any fuss.”

“He raised his voice and he was like, ‘You know what? If you don’t stop the sass and attitude, then I’m going to have you arrested,'” McNamara said. Students were growing impatient because there was only one person entering students’ information into one malfunctioning computer to register them, she said, but there was absolutely no reason to threaten arrest. She called the poll workers’ accusations “unjust” and “completely off-base.”

At that point, Gonzalez directed everyone to the Election Commission, which was still permitting people to register and vote and ended up extending voting hours to allow all of the students to vote.

“After he has basically turned all the students away, there was a huge migration of students over to the Election Commission,” Gonzalez said. “I’m going to guess there was near 200, probably over 200, just at one time that came at once. And at this point there’s under an hour until the polls close.”

Garringer, Chambers, and Gonzalez were later able to vote at the Election Commission office, but Garringer said she knows of many other students who were not able to vote because they could not find a ride.

Liddy declined ThinkProgress’ request for comment, and directed all inquiries to the DuPage County Election Commission. Assistant Executive Director Joe Sobecki said the college’s last-minute voter registration drive led to an “inordinately high number of registrations that had to be done,” which caused the long lines and issues at the polling location. He said he could not comment on the specific situation in Wheaton, but said he has received complaints about the issue and that voters without Illinois ID should not have been denied. He attributed the issues to an Illinois-wide problem with staffing election judges.