This week, Illinois took a final step toward becoming the sixth state in the nation to approve a system where residents are automatically registered to vote.
The automatic voter registration bill passed the House of Representatives Tuesday night with a veto-proof super-majority of 86 to 30. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), who has expressed support for the policy but has not explicitly promised to sign it.
Starting in 2018, every time Illinois residents visit a Department of Motor Vehicles, an office of Human Services, Healthcare and Family Services, the Secretary of State’s office, or an Employment Security office, he or she will be automatically registered to vote unless they opt out.
Christian Diaz with the organization Chicago Votes, which promotes civic engagement among young people of color, told ThinkProgress he hopes the policy will boost participation in local races.
“The federal elections are important, but the things the young people are talking to us about, like police brutality and funding for schools, those are things the president doesn’t necessarily decide,” Diaz said. “We had a governor’s race [in 2014] with an extremely low turnout, especially of millennials. And now we have a governor who clearly doesn’t think it’s important to fund scholarship programs. When we don’t vote, our concerns are not addressed.”
Over the past few years, Illinois has seen a number of close and heated local races. This year, a surge of engagement from young people of color helped unseat Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez after it was revealed that Alvarez led the cover-up of a police shooting of a black teenager.
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.
Diaz says if the governor signs automatic voter registration into law, these races will better reflect the will of the people of the state. Advocates also say the measure will save the cash-strapped state millions of dollars in the long run.
“When I go to the DMV and I’m asked if I want to register to vote, I currently have to fill out a separate form, by hand,” Diaz explained. “I then give it to a state worker who types the information from the paper sheet into the computer system, even though the government has already collected that same information. Human error also presents a huge issue. So this will make it a lot more efficient.”
Illinois is following the lead of Oregon, California, West Virginia, Vermont, and Connecticut, who have all approved the policy over the past few years. In Oregon, the only state so far where the policy has gone into effect, registration and voter participation have surged. The primary had one of the highest number of voters in Oregon’s history, second only to 2008’s historic election. The turnout rate also bested Kentucky’s, which held its primary that same day.
If Gov. Rauner signs the bill, nearly a fifth of all U.S. voters will have access to automatic registration.
Though the majority of lawmakers in both parties supported the measure, some Republicans expressed opposition to automatic voter registration, arguing it would make voting too easy.
“I think it’s important for the voter to have a little bit of initiative to do what they need to do and not just automatically be signed up,” complained Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), adding that he worried voters effortlessly registered wouldn’t do the work of educating themselves about the candidates on the ballot.
Diaz compared this claim to the justifications used in the past for poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures designed to suppress voters of color.
“It’s not a new argument,” he said. “It’s rooted in an ugly history of exclusion of certain communities, people who were perceived as uninformed, and it borders on racism.”
Gov. Rauner has 60 days to either sign the bill or veto it. If he chooses the latter, the bill has enough support in the legislature for a veto override.