BREAKING: Republicans block program to register 2 million Illinois voters

A vote to override the governor’s veto narrowly failed.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who vetoed automatic voter registration earlier this year. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who vetoed automatic voter registration earlier this year. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

On Tuesday, the Illinois General Assembly narrowly voted to uphold the governor’s veto of a bill that would have automatically registered two million voters across the state. The override failed by just four votes.

Fifteen House Republicans supported the bill earlier this year. On Tuesday, zero did. Thirteen changed their votes, and two have resigned.

Rep. Ed Sullivan, Jr. (R- Mundelein) said he changed his vote after he came to understand the “unintended consequences” of the policy, which has already been enacted in Oregon, California, West Virginia, Vermont, Alaska, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C.

“Certainly all of us want to make it easier for more people to vote, but we didn’t make it right,” he said on the House floor. “We can do it better.”

Governor Bruce Rauner (R) also warned of “unintended consequences” when he vetoed the bill in August, alleging the policy could “inadvertently open the door to voter fraud,” but presenting no evidence of this threat.

Study after study has found such voter fraud to be vanishingly rare, and federal courts have recently held that the threat of illegal voting is not a serious enough justification for laws that make it harder for eligible voters to participate.

Had the veto override passed, Illinois would have begun automatically registering state residents to vote every time they visited a Department of Motor Vehicles, office of Human Services, office of Healthcare and Family Services, the Secretary of State’s office, or an Employment Security office. Advocates for the policy point to the example of Oregon, which saw record levels of participation after implementing automatic voter registration earlier this year.

In Illinois, even a small increase in voter turnout could have huge political implications. In 2015, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel narrowly held onto his seat, defeating progressive challenger Chuy Garcia by fewer than 60,000 votes in the city of nearly three million. Rauner’s own election was decided by fewer than 200,000 votes. Advocates for automatic voter registration estimate that it would bring an additional 2 million already eligible voters into the political process.

On Tuesday, Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Champaign) blasted her Republican colleagues for voting against the bill they once supported, accusing them of expressing a “desire to deny people the right to vote.” She also attributed Gov. Rauner’s opposition to the bill to “concern about his own reelection” in 2018.

“They don’t want to expand the voting franchise, they want to make it smaller,” she said.

Following the veto, Republicans introduced their own competing automatic voter registration bill, and cited it Tuesday when voting no against the original, bipartisan version.

“We have offered an alternative that we think is better,” said Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Rochelle). “Let’s take the time we have until the next election takes place to get this right.”

But Trevor Gervais with the government watchdog group Common Cause Illinois noted that the Republican version has no timeline for the policy’s implementation.

“What we anticipate happening is that it would be delayed until after the governor’s reelection in 2018,” he said. “It’s very clear what his motives are for that.”

As the president-elect considers an Attorney General with a checkered record on voting rights, and Republicans take control of more state legislatures and governor’s mansions across the country, Gervais lamented the Illinois did not opt Tuesday to make voting more accessible.

“We’re stepping into four years of direct attacks on voting rights,” he said. “Here in Illinois we actually had an opportunity to expand voting rights before the attacks began, but instead we’re going to do nothing because of our billionaire governor.”