Five Illinois lawmakers require students applying for a legislative scholarship to register to vote – a requirement that some experts say is inappropriate and discriminatory.
John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based The Rutherford Institute, said lawmakers who require applicants vying for Illinois General Assembly scholarships to register are discriminating against students whose religious beliefs prevent them from participating in elections or those who simply choose not to vote.
“You have a right not to vote in America,” said Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer. “[People shouldn’t] be denied a public benefit like a scholarship because they exercise their right. Not only is it morally wrong, it’s constitutionally wrong.”
Whitehead said that if unsuccessful applicants are being denied a legislative scholarship – worth an average of $8,300 in 2007-2008 – because they’re not registered to vote, The Rutherford Institute would consider filing a lawsuit to stop the practice.
“This is totally discriminatory, and it should be thrown out the door because it’s just plain wrong,” said Whitehead.
A team of Columbia College Chicago journalists in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News identified five legislators who require applicants to submit proof of voter registration for either themselves or their legal guardians: Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington), Rep. Elizabeth Coulson (R-Glenview), Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago), Rep. Renée Kosel (R-Mokena) and Rep. Karen May (D-Highwood).
In all, 163 of the 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly participate in the century-old scholarship program. It’s up to each lawmaker to decide what applicants need to do to be considered for the tuition waivers that in 2007-2008 – the most recent data available – totaled $12.5 million statewide. State law requires only that scholarship winners live in the district of the lawmaker who selected them.
Rep. Kosel defended the requirement, saying she does not tell scholarship applicants how to vote or look at their voting records.
“I think it’s inappropriate not to be registered to vote in this country, and I cannot understand why anyone would question the appropriateness,” said Kosel. “It’s horrid.”
Rep. Kosel requires applicants to include a copy of their voter registration card to prove they live in her district. The introductory letter sent to students and schools states in bold font, “The application must also be accompanied by a copy of the applicant’s voter registration card (or in the event the student is not old enough to be a registered voter, a copy of his/her parent/guardian’s voter card).”
Rep. Coulson also requires that applicants register to vote to show residency. The introductory letter states: “Proof of Residency – a copy of your Illinois Driver’s License AND a copy of your Voter’s Registration if 18 or older.”
Coulson said attorneys looked over the requirement and said it was OK.
“It’s a way to verify you live in the district,” said Coulson.
But there are other ways to prove residency, like asking for a copy of a driver’s license or state identification card.
Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said it’s understandable that legislators want to ensure applicants live in the right district, but other pieces of identification could be used.
“It is a curious requirement,” said Yohnka, noting that property owners seeking tax breaks don’t have to prove they’re registered to vote.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he said. “And as much as any of us would like for more people to engage in and participate in the legislative process, there simply isn’t a reason or any purpose in making that compulsory, or making the receipt of aid conditional on a compulsory participation in the electoral process.”
Rep. Brady’s application asks if the student is a registered voter and if he or she has ever voted. It also states, “If you have not reached your 18th birthday, you will be expected to register to vote within one month of your 18th birthday. (Can be done by mail; print form from Internet.) Do you pledge to comply with this requirement?”
Rep. May said she asks all applicants old enough to vote to be registered.
“Not that we’re telling you to pick a party, just that you register,” said May.
But that may be exactly what students think is expected of them when they see this requirement, said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
“On the one hand, I can see them making this argument that it’s civic participation and it’s good and all that, and I do think people should vote. But I think it’s a quiet form of pressure,” said Canary. “It’s kind of like the old ward committeeman, ‘You should be registered to vote, and that means you should be voting for me.'”
Canary said she has a “degree of discomfort” with the requirement because it’s easy to determine whether someone voted in a Democratic or Republican primary.
“We have a secret ballot, but it’s only so secret,” said Canary.
One student who has received the scholarship for four years wondered if lawmakers check the voting records of applicants when making their selections. So Erika Strebel, a journalism major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided to vote for the person running against her state representative, Randy Ramey (R-West Chicago). Because of the state of Illinois politics, Strebel said she could see legislators favoring those who voted for them.
“You know, this is Illinois, so I thought if I voted for the other guy, would I get the scholarship this year?” said Strebel. “I voted for the other guy.”
And Rep. Ramey chose her once again to receive a free year of tuition.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the voter registration requirement is just the sort of thing that could make students suspicious of legislators and the selection process.
“[Legislators are] just leaving [themselves] open to people connecting the dots [as to] whether it’s justified or not,” said Redfield. “I view it as being one more reason why there should be a clear set of criteria set down by law or propagated by the State Board of Education.” That way, legislators “don’t get into these kinds of situations.”
Some legal experts and good-government advocates don’t have a problem with the practice, saying it ensures students get involved in the electoral process.
Richard Briffault, the Joseph P. Chamberlain professor of legislation at Columbia University Law School, said it’s legal to restrict a scholarship to citizens, as this one does.
“One can use it as a measure of citizen engagement or something, and use it as an incentive and a reward for being registered to vote. Being registered to vote is a proxy for being a politically engaged citizen. There’s nothing offensive about that,” said Briffault, though he called the requirement odd.
Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, said making students register to vote is a good policy because it guarantees there is a level of civic engagement.
Shaw said it’s a “very fair trade” for scholarship recipients to register to vote in exchange for getting free tuition.
“I think that if you want to be the beneficiary of a legislative perk, a perk provided by an elected lawmaker, that lawmaker has a right to say that you need to be a participant in the democratic process,” he said. “And the basic participation tool is the voting booth.”
Emily Capdevielle contributed to this story.
Other stories from Day Two:
Stories from Day One:
One Scholarship, 163 Ways to Dole It Out
Evasive State Legislators Dodge Questions About Scholarships
Clout or Coincidence? Some Legislators Keep General Assembly Scholarships All in the Family
Scholarships for Some Grad Students a Big Burden for State and Schools
Stories from Day Three: