Land of Lincoln Leap: Is Illinois Next on Automatic Voter Registration?

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[Image via dickndebbietravels]

Even as the 2016 election rapidly approaches, legislators in Illinois are moving ahead on a bill that would add the Land of Lincoln – this year! – to the list of states offering automatic registration, but the state board of elections is saying they’re not sure the state can or should move so quickly. The Associated Press has more:

A plan to make Illinois the next state to allow automatic voter registration is moving through the Legislature despite the state’s leading election authority having serious doubts that it has the ability and money to roll it out, especially with one deadline before November’s election.

After the Senate easily approved it, the House is poised to take up a proposal this week making the State Board of Elections the clearinghouse for automatically registering voters. By Sept. 1, the board would have to conduct a voter file update with state agencies’ data going back a year. The whole plan would be in place by 2018 …

Here’s how the proposal would work: Illinois residents who conduct business with any of five state agencies — like for a driver’s license — are asked if they meet voter requirements, including being U.S. citizens. Regardless of their eligibility answer, their information is forwarded to the elections board. Then it’s up to election officials to check against other records to verify eligibility, update existing files and start new voter applications. New applications are sent to local election authorities, like county clerks, who inform potential voters they’re registered unless they decline.

The participating agencies would be the Office of the Secretary of State and the departments of Human Services, Healthcare and Family Services, Employment Security, and Aging. The proposal says state officials wouldn’t send information involving temporary driver’s licenses, which are issued to people living in the country illegally.

Democratic sponsors are looking to follow in the footsteps of other states adopting automatic registration – and to answer the President’s recent call for action on registration issues. Republicans voice familiar concerns about potential problems with the approach – but do not uniformly oppose it, either:

Similar to laws in Oregon, California, West Virginia and Vermont, the Illinois plan would allow voters to opt out of automatic registration. Democrats, including those in the House where a committee could vote as early as Tuesday, say it’ll increase civic participation and modernize systems. They point to President Barack Obama’s call to make automatic voter registration “the new norm” nationwide during a February visit to Springfield.

Some Republicans claim the measure is a ploy to help Democrats, though GOP opposition is quieter than it has been to recent voter access measures, like 2014’s same-day registration. Five GOP senators voted for automatic voter registration and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner says he favors “simplifying” voter registration. Opponents elsewhere, including GOP-heavy West Virginia, claim automatic registration only adds apathetic voters …

[Others] raised concerns about fraud and politics in Democrat-leaning Illinois.

“They wouldn’t do this if it didn’t have a positive effect on the November election for them,” Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter of Lebanon said.

A key stumbling block may be state officials’ doubts about the feasibility of meeting an accelerated implementation schedule:

Election board officials say their concern is logistics, pointing out that there’s no program set up for the initial September update.

“It would take major changes to the system and structure of our system to try and implement these things,” said Kyle Thomas, the board’s director of voting and registration systems.

Thomas also questions the possible “millions” it could cost as the budget standoff between legislative Democrats and Rauner approaches a year…

Backers of the bill worked with election authorities, though state board officials say their final recommendations weren’t heeded and questioned why people who say they don’t meet voter requirements would be included in data sent to the board. Proponents argue all data would be necessary for accurate analysis and say other states have spent less. Oregon’s implementation cost $200,000, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Some local officials have expressed support as well:

While the statewide organization representing county clerks took a “neutral” position, some favored the plan.

Cook County Clerk David Orr, a Democrat, said it would improve accuracy. Republican Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten said it would be more efficient and smooth out issues with same-day registration, which caused long lines in 2014.

“If the presumption is that a person is eligible to vote,” Hulten said, “let’s get them on the voter roll ahead of time.”

This is an incredibly ambitious undertaking – but it’s not yet clear whether the plan will make it to final passage this year. The bill must still pass the House and then it will need to get the Governor’s approval – and while he appears to be favorably inclined to reforms, the price tag and rapid implementation plan could be a stumbling block.

The story is reminder that Illinois seems to have a penchant for fast action – remember, the state’s OVR bill was enacted in the waning moments of the 2014 session – so if the bill succeeds it won’t be a total surprise. If it does, election officials and other policymakers will have a huge task on their hands to begin implementation of the plan in the middle of a presidential election year.

To paraphrase fictional Illinois resident Ferris Bueller: Illinois moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss something.

Stay tuned …

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