Opt-In, Opt-Out: Controversy Over Automatic Voter Registration

With just over a month to go before Illinois voters can begin casting early votes for the November general election, voting rights advocates would typically be busy with registration drives; Democratic candidates would typically be unified in a get-out-the-vote effort.

But Monday, the Just Democracy Illinois coalition and Democratic legislators who sponsored Illinois’ automatic voter registration (AVR) law accused Secretary of State Jesse White, arguably the state’s most popular Democrat as he runs for a record sixth term, of failing to properly implement AVR.

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“It’s absolutely necessary to ensure that our citizens in the state of Illinois have their voices heard at the ballot box,” said state Rep. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, who until her July appointment was an activist with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “We have very important elections coming up.”

Advocates contend that White’s office will not have automatic voter registration ready in time for the November general election, nor for the 2018 race for Chicago mayor.

But White’s office contends AVR is already in place, and that registration numbers have nearly doubled since its July rollout.

“The fact is the AVR program is up and running. It is going very well,” White said in a statement. “Anyone who wishes to register to vote may do so.”

In July, Illinois made registering to vote easier by automating the process so that when Illinois residents go to a DMV facility for a new driver’s license, their information is checked against voter rolls.

Updated information is automatically transferred to elections authorities.

But that’s not enough for voting rights advocates, who say that White’s office is still requiring eligible voters to take too many steps to register.

“Modernizing opt-in voter registration is different than implementing automatic, or opt-out, registration,” said Hannah Kim of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group. “Secretary White failed to implement opt-out registration, the cornerstone of the law, by the July 2018 statutory deadline. We call on Secretary White to comply with the law we fought passionately to enact by fully implementing opt-out registration by January 2019.”

Illinois’ AVR law is tied to the state updating driver’s licenses and ID cards so they comply with the federal REAL ID law, which established security standards for the types of identification cards that are accepted for boarding a plane.

Illinois has had to seek several extensions, but White spokesman Dave Druker said Illinois will be ready to comply by next spring.

Druker said that at about that time – or perhaps by July or August 2019 – the Secretary of State will be ready to make the changes voting advocates are seeking.

He said the office needs time to ensure that individuals who are not citizens and therefore not eligible to vote are not automatically registered to vote by mistake.

“The goal is to avoid putting someone at risk,” he said.

White faces Republican nominee Jason Helland, Grundy County State’s Attorney, in the November election.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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