A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that the Illinois State Board of Elections must stop enacting Election Day voter registration because the practice doesn’t treat big cities and rural areas equally.
The preliminary injunction by U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan came on National Voter Registration Day, a day aimed at ensuring voters are registered for the November election.
The law in question requires counties with more than 100,000 people to offer Election Day voter registration at all precinct polling places, but the judge ruled that is unfair to smaller counties.
“Illinois is made up of more than the Chicago metropolitan area and other high population areas. Equality under the law does not end at the city limits,” Der-Yeghiayan wrote, adding the bill “favors the urban citizen and dilutes the vote of the rural citizen.”
The Illinois Attorney General’s office said it will appeal the ruling.
The Illinois State Board of Elections on Tuesday said only in-precinct registration will be prohibited on Election Day. But there are a limited amount of places to register in Illinois, and people are being asked to contact their county clerks to see which locations are available.
It’s a move Chicago election officials say will create “chaos.”
“We already programmed 4,000 electronic poll books, printed instruction manuals for 15,000 poll workers, and they started classes already,” Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen said in an email. “We’ve already loaded the signage and materials that explain acceptable forms of ID and how to help voters get to their correct polling place.”
Allen noted Chicago has 1.5 million voters, with more than 30,000 people who registered to vote on Election Day during the primary.
“Crawford County has a total of 12,000 voters. Our needs are clearly different, and the law saw to that,” Allen said. “Now, if this ruling stands, our task will be to develop alternative programs to serve voters — and prevent lines, confusion and disenfranchisement.”
Cook County Clerk David Orr called the decision “disappointing” and “irresponsible.”
“This lawsuit was a thinly-veiled partisan effort by the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute to disenfranchise voters,” Orr said in a statement, noting 110,000 Illinois voters registered on Election Day in the March primary.
The Liberty Justice Center — which represented the Republicans who challenged the law — does litigation for conservative think tank The Illinois Policy Institute, an ally of Gov. Bruce Rauner. It’s the same group releasing a “documentary” criticizing Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.
The justice center argued the law made voting in counties with population under 100,000 more difficult.
“Today the court recognized the unfairness of guaranteeing a voting right to some voters but not others,” Liberty Justice Center senior attorney Jacob Huebert said in a statement. “The court ruled that if Illinois is going to have Election Day voter registration at polling places, it should be available statewide — and it should be fair.”
The Liberty Justice Center called the same-day registration bill “a scheme” voted for by all Democrats and voted against by Republicans. While the group claims to be nonpartisan, the center said high-population counties in Illinois tend to favor Democratic candidates while low population counties tend to favor Republican candidates.
The center is also urging the Illinois General Assembly to enact same-day voter registration in all counties, “not just in places where one political party wants to boost its turnout.”
The bill was signed into law by outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2015 after Democrats passed it during a 2014 lame duck session. Republicans at the time fought the bill, saying it could lead to voter fraud.
A group of voting-rights advocates — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Better Government Association, League of Women Voters of Illinois and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform — filed an amicus brief in August urging Der-Yeghiayan to reject the effort to eliminate Election Day registration so close to the election. According to the ACLU, in the March 2016 primaries, more than 100,000 eligible people registered and voted using Election Day registration, both Democrats and Republicans.
“We are concerned about the impact of this decision, changing the rules of voting so close to this hotly contested election,” ACLU of Illinois spokesman Ed Yohnka said. “We must continue to use every available method to ensure that every eligible voter in our state can access the ballot — not create obstacles to the franchise.”