Illinois governor signs automatic voter registration into law

It's the tenth state to enact the policy.

Voters enter a polling place to cast their ballots Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Bradfordton, Ill. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman
Voters enter a polling place to cast their ballots Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Bradfordton, Ill. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Illinois’ legislature unanimously passed legislation Monday that would make it the tenth state with automatic voter registration, adding over one million new voters to the rolls.

The bill would automatically register eligible citizens who visit the Department of Motor Vehicles, Secretary of State’s office, and several other state agencies unless they opt out. It heads to Gov. Bruce Rauner (R)’s desk after final approval by the state senate, which also unanimously passed it earlier this month.

Advocates estimate that roughly one million out of 2.2 million unregistered but eligible Illinois voters will be added to the rolls once they visit a participating agency.

The bill marks the second time lawmakers in Illinois have attempted to enact automatic registration. Last August, Rauner vetoed a similar bill, citing the threat of non-citizens committing voter fraud even though studies show that voter fraud, particularly by non-citizens, is virtually non-existent.

“The consequences could be injurious to our election system,” Rauner said at the time, urging the legislature to make reforms to the bill before sending it back to him.

A majority of the state senate voted to override his veto in November, but a few weeks later, the general assembly narrowly voted to uphold Rauner’s decision. The override failed by just four votes.

Democrats in Illinois’ legislature kept trying. The legislation the assembly passed this week is largely similar to the original bill, but allows eligible citizens to opt out before they are automatically registered, while the last incarnation of the bill would have made them take themselves off the rolls once they were registered.

Voting advocates are hopeful that Rauner, who expressed support for automatic registration before vetoing the last bill, will sign the legislation with the changes. Trevor Gervais, lead organizer with the government watchdog group Common Cause Illinois, told ThinkProgress that Rauner’s concerns about fraud are unfounded.

“The first bill was not going to welcome in voter fraud and the second bill isn’t going to either,” he said. “When we drafted the first bill, we did it with both Democrats and Republicans… This year we implemented a few new things like front-end opt-out and that was able to push this to unanimous support.”

Gervais said that’s especially noteworthy given the current highly-partisan period in Illinois politics.

“It’s generally a very toxic political environment and the fact that we’re able to now see an automatic voter registration bill pass with completely unanimous, bipartisan support is hopefully a step in the right direction, not just for our state politics but for other states throughout the Midwest and the country that should really be passing this regardless of partisanship,” he said.

Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia have approved automatic voter registration, following the example of Oregon, which saw record levels of participation after it became the first state to implement the policy in 2015. Illinois would be the first state to automatically register citizens who visit agencies other than the DMV.

All evidence shows that automatic registration helps boost voter turnout, but Republicans continue to disapprove of the policy because higher turnout tends to help Democrats win elections. Rauner won his election to governor in 2014 by just over 142,000 votes.

Automatic registration is not the only voting policy that Republicans disapprove. After Rauner vetoed the legislation last year, Illinois Republicans targeted the state’s same-day registration policy in their continued push to block voters from the polls. Under the law, counties with populations of 100,000 or more have to allow voters to register at polling places on Election Day.

In September, a federal judge granted Republicans’ motion, blocking the implementation of the program just two months before the 2016 presidential election. The court found that same-day registration benefited Democratic strongholds like Chicago and diluted the vote in rural parts of the state that may favor Republican candidates.

Ultimately, same-day registration was an option for Illinois voters during the 2016 election after an appeals court stayed the lower court ruling.


UPDATE: Rauner signed the legislation into law Monday, August 28th.