Local officials react to limitations on election day registration

Chicago voting booth
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners estimated that 100,000 people could be affected by the change in the election day registration law. (Christen Gall/ MEDILL)

By Christen Gall and Guy-Lee King

UPDATE: Oct.6, This has been updated, see latest news here.

After U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan ruled election day registration unconstitutional in Illinois last week, election officials in Chicago are scrambling to figure out the logistics for Nov. 8.

Voters hoping to register to vote and cast a ballot on election day will face a limited number of polling locations. Following the ruling, only a few locations, likely downtown, will allow for election day registration. Some have speculated that the decision could affect the outcome of state and local races.

The lawsuit was filed in reaction to the 2014 law allowing election day registration in counties with populations of over 100,000. Critics of the law say it favors counties with higher populations that may support more Democratic candidates. This is the first presidential election with election day registration in Illinois.

Jim Allen, spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, estimated that 100,000 unsuspecting voters could come out on election day to register in Chicago. Allen called the judge’s ruling, “a highly unusual curve ball.”

“We will offer some combination of sites if this case is not overturned,” Allen said. “Our elections are huge and there is too much at stake.”

According to the Illinois’ state Board of Elections, over 100,000 people voted using election-day registration in the March 2016 primary. The Chicago Board of Election, which determines local polling places, is now tasked with finding new locations to accommodate the potentially large number of election day-voters. Among the considerations for new polling places is that they must be accessible by CTA and have enough voting equipment and election officials. Allen said complications in finding locations could be costly for Chicago.

“This court wants to create chaos at the precincts,” said Allen. “You can have election day registration, but you can’t make it convenient.”

Nicholas Stephanopoulos, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago called the ruling “problematic.”

“If the harm is that certain counties in Illinois don’t have access to election day registration, the right remedy shouldn’t be wipe out voter registration everywhere it should be to mandate that election day registration be available throughout the state,” said Stephanopoulos.

“I think more turnout is a good thing period for democracy, regardless of what side benefits from the higher turnout,” said Stephanopoulos.

Stephanopoulos believed that the court’s decision could affect a close contest like the Illinois Senate race between Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth. According to a mid-September poll by Emerson College Polling Society, Duckworth was polling just two points ahead of Kirk, but Bloomberg released numbers this week leaving Kirk 14 points behind Duckworth proving the election could tilt in Duckworth’s favor.

“It’s quite plausible that the court’s decision will reduce the Democrats margin [in the Kirk and Duckworth senate race]. Could even be enough, potentially if the race is tight enough, to flip the outcome of the race,” said Stephanopoulos.

Ninth Congressional District Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) expressed her disappointment over Judge Der-Yeghiayan’s ruling.

“Same day registration allows many individuals to have their voice heard–many of them students, seniors, and low-income voters–that will now be excluded from the voting process,” Schakowsky said.

State Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Aurora, who voted against the 2014 bill said concern about voter fraud was one reason he opposed the bill.

“I think all of us support as wide of voter participation at we can,” said Oberweis. “My concern was whether we were in a position to control or prevent voter fraud.”

Attorney Jacob Huebert, with Liberty Justice Center, filed the lawsuit in August 2016, calling the law a “scheme” to benefit political candidates who receive greater support from more populated counties.

“You can’t give some people better access [to voter registration] than you give to others,” said Huebert.

The point of the lawsuit, said Huebert, is not about election-day registration, but about fair access to voters. Huebert admitted that voter turnout would likely be lower without as many election day registration locations available, but blamed it on the Illinois General Assembly for passing an unfair law in 2014.  When asked about the extra work for the Chicago Board of Election, Huebert seemed to think the inconvenience would be minimal.

“People have better opportunities to register for this election than any other presidential election in history,” said Huebert. “There is still plenty of time to register before the election.”

Across the country, election day registration is in effect in the District of Columbia and 13 states, including four battleground states–Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners estimated that 100,000 people could be affected by the change in the election day registration law. (Christen Gall/ MEDILL)