E-41: Courts Shift Registration Rules in Illinois and Georgia

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[Image via flickr user markbranly]

There are 41 days until Election Day – or, as many election officials say, “E-41” – and we are still getting court activity that could have significant impact on the November election. Yesterday – somewhat fittingly, on National Voter Registration Day – there were key developments involving registration procedures in Illinois and Georgia.

Illinois: Back in August, I wrote about a challenge to Illinois’ same-day registration rules, which give voters in larger communities the opportunity to register at the polling place on Election Day. Opponents of the law argue that such disparate treatment is unconstitutional because it does not treat smaller communities equally. Yesterday, a federal judge agreed and issued an injunction blocking same-day polling place registration this November. The Chicago Tribune has more:

A federal judge Tuesday blocked Election Day voter registration at polling places in Illinois, declaring a state law allowing the practice unconstitutional because it created one set of rules for cities and another for rural areas.

Voters will still be able to register Nov. 8 and cast a ballot for president but only at a limited number of sites, including the county clerk’s office, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections…

The suit challenged a law that required counties of more than 100,000 people that use electronic books to record voter registration to allow for Election Day registration at every polling place. Counties without electronic polling books and below 100,000 population had to at least provide same-day registration at a centralized location.

The suit contended that allowing the process only in more heavily populated urban counties would benefit Democratic candidates “who primarily draw their support from counties with populations of 100,000 or more.”

The case ended up before U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush. In issuing a preliminary injunction, the judge found that “while it may be true that the polling place registration option can assist voters in certain populous counties, that option cannot be provided at the expense of lower population counties, thereby decreasing their political representation in Illinois.”

“The application of this legislation favors the urban citizen and dilutes the vote of the rural citizen,” wrote Der-Yeghiayan, who added, “Illinois is made up of more than the Chicago metropolitan area and other high population areas. Equality under the law does not end at the city limits.”

The state will appeal the ruling, even as election officials decide whether to continue with preparations for November:

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners already was preparing staff, equipment and signs for Election Day in-precinct registrations, including programming electronic poll books, printing instruction manuals and beginning classes for poll workers, spokesman Jim Allen said.

“The timing of this ruling is sure to create chaos,” Allen said in an email. “If this ruling stands, our task will be to develop alternative programs to serve voters — and prevent lines, confusion and disenfranchisement.”

The ACLU of Illinois and Democratic Cook County Clerk David Orr echoed the disenfranchisement note. The office of Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said it would appeal the ruling …

The deadline to register online to vote in the presidential election is Oct. 23, Allen said. After that, voters can sign up in person during what’s referred to as “grace period” voting, which continues through Election Day. While the new injunction blocks same-day registration at polling places, voters still can register that day at other sites.

There was no court ruling in Georgia, but there will still be big changes to the voter rolls this after the Secretary of State’s office agreed to at least temporarily stop using a matching protocol that plaintiffs claim discriminates against minority voters. MyAJC has more:

As a result, thousands of voters whose applications have been rejected since Oct. 1, 2014, may be allowed to cast a ballot on Nov. 8. The state has also agreed to stop the automatic rejection of applications that don’t exactly match information in state and federal databases as part of the agreement, which was finalized late Monday.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge William O’Kelley, the state Attorney General’s Office said Kemp was voluntarily taking the actions to avoid any unexpected emergency measures imposed by the court as the lawsuit moved forward.

At issue is a set of rules that block registrations that do not match certain databases:

Georgia has used a voter registration process that requires all of the letters and numbers making up an applicant’s name, date of birth, driver’s license number and last four digits of his or her Social Security number to exactly match the same letters and numbers for the applicant on the state’s Department of Drivers Service or federal Social Security Administration databases.

If a single letter, number, hyphen, space or apostrophe is out of place and if the applicant fails to correct the mismatch within 40 days of being notified of the problem, the application is automatically rejected.

The state’s matching rules were challenged a few weeks ago by plaintiffs citing their disparate impact on minority voters:

Advocacy groups filed the suit two weeks ago, alleging that black, Latino and Asian-American applicants were far more likely than whites to be rejected due to mismatches with state and federal databases, disproportionately affecting minority voters across the state and violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Republican Kemp’s office at the time had called it an unwarranted attack by liberal groups. His office did not immediately respond Monday evening to a request for comment.

In all, the state denied 34,874 registration applications from 2013 to 2016 due to mismatched information. Of those, black applicants were eight times more likely to fail the state’s verification process than white applicants, and Latinos and Asian-Americans were six times more likely to fail, according to the suit.

The accusations in the lawsuit have been strongly denied by Kemp, who has traveled the state to tout the accessibility of Georgia’s elections this year. The verification process Georgia uses was pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010.

It looks like the Illinois story is still fluid, pending an appeal, while Georgia’s seems to be settled until the court can hear the full case after the election. Both, however, are likely to be felt on Election Day as procedures change and it becomes easier or harder for voters to get on the rolls. I am absolutely certain that we have yet to hear the end of either of these disputes both before and after Election Day.

Stay tuned …

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