Illinois Election Day Registration Challenged

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Back in late 2014, Illinois enacted a sweeping election bill that included Election Day registration – a move cheered by many advocates but also one that raised eyebrows because it was passed after the 2014 election and signed by Democratic governor Pat Quinn, who had been defeated for re-election, before his successor was inaugurated. Now, a conservative group is planning to challenge the law in court, alleging that it improperly distinguishes between large and small counties – resulting in a partisan imbalance in its impact. Reuters has more:

A group aligned with a conservative Illinois think tank sued the state in federal court [last] Thursday, challenging a recent law allowing Election Day voter registration at polling places in the state’s most populous counties.

The statute in question, passed in late 2014 by the Democratic-led legislature and enacted in early 2015 by former Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, for the first time allowed Election Day voter registration, including at polling places.

But the section of the law pertaining to polling place registration applied only to counties with populations of 100,000 or more.

The Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center believes that population threshold unconstitutionally discriminates against voters in Illinois’ less populated counties and also gives a boost to Democrats in heavily Democratic Cook County, home to Chicago and birthplace of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“It hardly seems coincidental Democratic candidates tend to do better in high-population counties, and Republican candidates do better in low-population counties,” said Jacob H. Huebert, senior attorney for the group.

Huebert said his group will seek an injunction against polling-place registration for the Nov. 8 election.

Defenders of the law say the law doesn’t discriminate against smaller communities – and suggested plaintiffs had partisan motivations of their own:

State Senator Don Harmon, a Democrat from suburban Chicago and the law’s chief Senate sponsor, said Illinois law commonly differentiates between counties’ populations and said election officials in less-populous counties voiced concern about not having resources for polling place registration.

Under the law in question, voters in smaller counties can still register on Election Day in county clerks’ offices.

Harmon suggested the lawsuit’s real aim is to dampen Democratic voter turnout this fall, particularly in party strongholds like Cook County. In 2015, there were 4 million residents in the county above the voter-eligible age of 18, according to the U.S. Census.

In the March presidential primary, 1.4 million votes were cast from Cook County, nearly 80 percent of which were Democratic, state records show.

“I suspect the plaintiffs are much more interested in having same-day registration thrown out in Cook County than they are in extending it to every small county in Illinois,” Harmon said.

On its merits, this is an interesting case; while the state may have sought to spare smaller communities the burden of implementing EDR (a burden some larger counties have resisted), the differentiation between counties is an inviting target – though defenders of the law will likely observe that these kinds of distinctions are not uncommon in other states.

The most significant aspect of the challenge is the timing; if this case moves forward, resulting in uncertainty about election rules as Election Day approaches, that will be unfortunate for election officials and voters alike. In particular, if EDR is not going to be in place in November, Illinois voters need to know ASAP so they can register or update their registrations in time to cast ballots this fall. Here’s hoping (probably in vain) that any orders or rulings happen sooner than later so that everyone in Illinois has certainty about what’s expected on Election Day.

Stay tuned …

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