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What You Need To Know About Illinois’ Attempt At Automatic Voter Registration

On Friday, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would have set up automatic voter registration (AVR) in the state. But AVR advocates say his veto was unjustified. Here's a breakdown of the proposal, why exactly Rauner vetoed it (despite favoring the concept) and what's next. 

What is Automatic Voter Registration?

Senate Bill 250 would require the Illinois State Board of Elections to build an electronic portal to allow several state agencies to register eligible voters automatically, rather than as an opt-in process. It would mean that anyone showing up at, for example, the Illinois Department of Human Services would be shown, in writing, a list of voting eligibility requirements and penalties for fraudulently registering to vote. If the individual attests that he or she meets the requirements, the agency would collect information necessary to register that person to vote, and transmit it electronically to the Board of Elections. An individual may decline to have their information sent to the Board of Elections, without specifying their reason.

Once the State Board of Elections has verified an individual’s eligibility to vote, staff will generate an electronic voter application for him or her, and send it to the appropriate election authority to process. That authority would then notify the individual in writing that they will be registered to vote, and will include an option for the receiving party to opt-out of registration.

Who wanted it?

The bill passed both the Illinois Senate and House on May 31, 2016, with bipartisan support in both chambers. A coalition of community organizations, good government groups and elected officials pushed for the bill, arguing that it would modernize Illinois’ voter registration process. Cook County Clerk David Orr emphasized that automatic registration would also reduce the burden on individuals who are eligible to vote.

Why did Governor Bruce Rauner veto it?

Rauner says he supports the intention of SB250, and has called himself a “strong advocate for modernizing our election system and easing voter access.” But his office cited concerns that the bill could violate federal election law because it requires state agencies to pass information pertaining to an individual’s citizenship to a third party, namely the State Board of Elections. Rauner also said the bill could open the door to voter fraud, particularly by non-citizens. He left the possibility open, however, that with some modifications he would sign another version of the bill.

The Illinois Board of Elections has separately shared its concerns over the costs and timeline associated with implementing the AVR system. “If given the proper funding, we could have it done by January 1, 2018,” said James Tenuto, assistant executive director, referring to the start date in the bill. “It takes time and money to get the programs in place,” he said.

What do proponents of AVR say about the veto?

Orr, condemning Rauner’s veto, rejected Rauner’s reasons for the veto, calling them “silly” in a press conference on Monday. He noted that Oregon has implemented automatic voter registration without running afoul of federal election laws. He also said that the concern about fraudulent or illegal voting is baseless.

“We do not have a problem with non-citizens trying to cheat and vote in Illinois. We have researched this for years,” Orr said. “These people do not want to be deported for accidentally registering to vote.”

While Orr was careful to frame the bill as one that would widen voting opportunities to people of all party affiliations and races, some other proponents came as close as they could to calling the governor’s veto “voter suppression,” without actually using those words. Rep. Carol Ammons (D-103rd) noted voter ID laws that have become heated issues in several states.

“There is an agenda to restrict voting, and we should not mix words with that. This is a dangerous one,” said Ammons. “It’s no coincidence that as women and minorities are gaining representation as elected officials, utilizing the voting rights to influence party direction and policy choices, there has been a concerted effort to roll back the clock. This veto is in line with that effort.”

Supporters of the bill also noted that negotiations with the governor’s office broke down over issues that were quite different from the governor’s publicly stated reasons for vetoing. According to Abraham Scarr, Director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, Rauner’s office wished to require people to opt out of registration immediately at the time that they interact with the agency that would register them, rather than at a later time. Scarr said the governor also pushed to move the implementation date from January 1, 2018, to after the next gubernatorial election. Rauner is expected to run for re-election.

Will this affect the November election?

The automatic voter registration was never intended to be in place before the November 2016 election. However, another provision in the bill would have gone into effect immediately. Orr said that by joining a multi-state data-sharing initiative, Illinois has identified 700,000 registered voters whose addresses have not been updated to reflect their current residence. SB250 would have automatically updated those addresses.

What’s next?

Backers of the bill say they will try to override the veto when they convene again, starting November 15th.

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