DIGGING DEEPER: Voter Numbers up, Automatic Voter Registration to Fully Kick in Next Year

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The Illinois Secretary of State’s Office said it has seen a large number of residents registering to vote this election cycle after Jesse White’s office rolled out the first phase of Automatic Voter Registration earlier this year, despite getting backlash from lawmakers and voter advocacy groups.

“We had looked at the numbers that we got though the Secretary of State’s Office prior to July 2nd and it averaged about 30 thousand a month. Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections said. “Since then we’ve had about 70 thousand a month, so that shows that program is increasing the numbers of registrants who are coming to us through, through the driver license facilities.”

The increase comes as criticism mounted early in September, when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that lawmakers and voter advocacy groups were calling out White’s office for failing to fully roll out the AVR program in time for the midterm election.

In 2017, lawmakers passed a bill that would automatically register residents to vote when applying for a driver’s license or state ID. The bill also made changes to the coordination between the Secretary of State’s Office and Illinois Board of Elections and streamlines to registration process, which was the first phase of the program.

“OJuly 2nd, we started the first phase of automatic voter registration and it’s a bit of a misnomer because the automatic part is not fully in place,” Dietrich said.

Prior to the bill, driver facilities would ask residents if they would like to register, but would have to send in the paperwork to the election authority by way of mail. And in some cases, residents might not have been prompted with the registration question.

“The information is sent electronically to the Illinois Board of Elections,” said Henry Haupt, Deputy Press Secretary for the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office. “The application process to register to vote would be sent to the Illinois State Board of Elections and they would work with county clerks to register people to vote.

However, the second phase of the program, known as “opt-out,” has caused some controversy with lawmakers and voting rights groups because they believe it should have been in place by the July 1 deadline.

The Secretary of State’s Office confirmed they couldn’t finish the process in time because of the federal “Real ID” Actpassed by Congress in 2005 as a way to create a consistent identification process across all states that would allow a person to board a domestic flight or to gain access federal buildings.

Haupt said White’s office expects to have “Real ID” in place by spring 2019,  when residents will be able to apply for one provided, they bring in the additional documentation need, and then they will be automatically registered unless they “opt-out” of the program. AVR became integrated with the REAL ID program because of the additional documents needed to obtain one which verifies a person’s citizenship.

Illinois has been granted numerous “Real ID” extensions to keep the state in compliance with the federal government.

But administrators of AVR argue that people who are not U.S. citizens would could slip through the cracks and accidentally register to vote. This is why officials said the state will have a two-tiered system allowing for people to get a REAL ID, regular driver’s license, or state ID when the system is completely implemented.

We don’t want the automatic voter registration program, to be the automatic deportation program,” said Haupt. “One of the top priorities of Secretary White is to ensure the integrity of the election process. he does not want anyone who is not a U.S. citizen to try to register to vote.”

“There’s nothing when you get your drivers license renewed in which you prove your citizenship or attest to your citizenship status and for that reason when you do your voting application at the drivers license office. They need to ask you do you want to register to vote,” said Dietrich said. 

In that same Sun-Times report, one of the voter groups who claimed the Secretary of State did not correctly rollout the program, Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), floated the idea that there could be possible legal action White’s for non-compliance.

When asked about possible legal action, Haupt said he could not comment on “hypotheticals.”

Jeff Burnett

Jeff Burnett

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