Auto-voter registration in Illinois not complying with law, experts say

By Megan Sauer
Medill Reports

Jay Young  celebrated in 2017 when then-Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the automatic voter registration bill into law. Young, among several other nonprofit and voting rights advocates, thought Springfield’s approval signaled the end of a long, painstaking process that had required months of political appeasing and redrafting legislation.

“It felt like a big event and everyone in both houses seemed to get behind something this vital,” said Young, 47, the executive director of Common Cause Illinois, a pro-demoracy organization in Chicago. “The process, from that really high point to where we are today, has been really frustrating.”

Although lawmakers purposely built extensions into the bill to allow government agencies time to implement AVR by July 2018, over a year has passed since its initial deadline. As far as Young and other members of the Just Democracy coalition are concerned, the inclusive “spirit” of the AVR bill has not been implemented “anywhere in the state” of Illinois.

The Secretary of State’s office is one of the main agencies responsible for enlightening eligible citizens they have been automatically registered to vote, but may “opt-out” with a single signature. Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, said an AVR system is not only up and running in all of their locations, but also has already registered over 680,000 people since government agencies began offering REAL ID earlier this year. According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, about 43,260 of these voters were considered REAL ID compliant.

“If someone is applying for REAL ID, they bring in their birth certificates, passports and social security information, showing us they are U.S. citizens,” Druker said. “There is another group, however, going for a standard driver’s license. In some cases, they may have a green card or are possibly not U.S. citizens, so we require a second signature.”

The additional signature is the reason members of the Just Democracy Coalition are accusing the

Secretary of State’s office and other government agencies of breaking the law. Ami Gandhi, a voting rights attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, argued this extra step puts non-citizens at risk and said the coalition is in the process of evaluating their own legal options to enforce the law’s requirements.

“Our concern is that even under the opt-out system, additional signatures and steps are being asked of eligible voters beyond what the law requires,” Gandhi said. “In a flawed implementation of the opt-in system, there are insufficient protections for individuals who are not looking to register.”

Gandhi also said minority communities are often overlooked in voting rights discussions and any additional barriers will further deter their participation in elections.

“Even with various helpful systems in place to provide Illinois voters access to the polls, we still have over one million eligible voters, who aren’t registered, that have given their identifying information over to the state already,” she said.

Young, Gandhi and the other members of their coalition sent a demand letter to the Secretary of State’s office and Illinois’ Board of Elections in 2018, but without a direct response as to why AVR isn’t implemented “fully and on time,” the advocates feel in the dark.

When the bill was passed in 2017, Illinois was the ninth state to sign AVR into law. Other states that have successfully implemented their own versions of the bill have preliminary data suggesting AVR not only improves voter participation, but also saves state governments money.

Research from The Pew Center on the States, for instance, revealed Oregon’s state government spent over $8.8 million during the 2008 presidential election, while a later study conducted by Common Cause found it only cost $530,217 to register voters between 2015-2017 after the state implemented AVR in 2016.

Returning success rates from other states continue to frustrate the members of Just Democracy, including Georgia Logothetis, who also works for Common Cause. She worries the vision of AVR has been lost in politics.

“A lot of advocates envisioned an extraordinary simple process where you’re handed an iPad while you’re waiting in line and bam, bam, bam — you’ve renewed your ID and in the process, registered to vote,” Logothetis, 37, said. “This kind of seamless, extremely modern and streamline technology — it just simply doesn’t exist in Illinois.”

Jordyn Squiers, a junior studying advertising and public relations at Loyola University Chicago, represents a portion of millennials and the U.S. population that have never voted in an election. While she didn’t give a specific reason for abstaining from voting, she thinks the turnout will be much higher across all age groups for the 2020 election, especially if AVR is established in more states in the U.S.

“Everyone today is all about easiness and convenience,” Squiers, 21, said. “I think if AVR was a thing, more people would participate, especially in the next election. People are going to want to say they were involved.”

Because of the discrepancies between the nonprofit coalition and Illinois’ government agencies, Young is wary AVR will be implemented in its intended capacity by the 2020 presidential election, neglecting over a million predicted eligible voters in across the state.

“I’ll be in D.C. next week for an annual conference to talk about elections and voter registration,” Young said. “When it comes to AVR, I’ll be sitting on the same panel, having the same conversations and voicing the same frustrations.”


Photo at top: Jay Young has been one of the loudest voices in opposition of Illinois’ implementation of AVR in its government agencies, asserting “it would be very hard for anyone to take the position that the state is in full compliance with the terms of the statue.” (Megan Sauer/MEDILL)