Editorial: Equal opportunity for all voters always comes first

SHARE Editorial: Equal opportunity for all voters always comes first

The Illinois primary is March 20. | AP file photo

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Every effort should be made to make it easier for citizens to vote, but never in a way that gives some voters an unfair advantage over others.

On Tuesday, a federal judge imposed an injunction against an Illinois voter law that, to the judge’s thinking, would do just that, and his legal reasoning is persuasive. The law, which requires certain counties — but not other counties — to allow voters to register at polling places on Election Day, appears to violate a bedrock constitutional principle that everybody should have an equal opportunity to vote.

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U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan’s injunction likely means that voter turnout will be somewhat diminished in more urban counties of Illinois, such as Cook, in the Nov. 8 elections, which undoubtedly is unfortunate. We want more people to vote, not fewer. But don’t knock the judge. Blame Democrats in the state Legislature and former Gov. Pat Quinn, who two years ago pushed through this law that puts rural voters at a significant disadvantage.

The best solution, favored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, would be for a federal appeals court to extend this Election Day registration requirement immediately to all 101 counties in Illinois, rather than put a hold on it in Cook and other big counties. That would create a level playing field and encourage a bigger voter turnout from Winthrop Harbor to Cairo.

Der-Yeghiayan, unfortunately, says that’s a job for the Legislature, and so it may be. We would welcome a convincing appellate court ruling that says otherwise.

Critics of the injunction say this is nothing but raw politics. The lawsuit, they say, was brought by Illinois Republicans who don’t care a whit about high-minded constitutional fairness; they just want to suppress the Democratic vote in November. Cook County Clerk David Orr has called the suit “a thinly veiled partisan effort by the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute to disenfranchise voters.”

Well, of course it’s raw politics. We have no doubt the plaintiff’s aim is to suppress the Democratic vote. The law in question requires counties with more than 100,000 people to offer same-day registration at polling places — counties full of Democrats, that is to say. The same Republican Party also opposed a good law providing for automatic voter registration when people get or renew their driver’s licenses. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the bill.

But the raw politics work both ways. We don’t see a lot of idealists here.

The Election Day registration law was approved strictly along party lines in 2014 — all “yes” votes from Democrats — and signed by a lame-duck Democratic governor. Everybody talked a good line about the importance of encouraging more people to vote, and we don’t doubt they believed it. But everybody also knew that a lopsided number of those new voters — urban, younger, more transient — would be Democrats. It’s hard to imagine Democrats would have been so giddy had the law favored Republicans.

The law did not create actual barriers against voting, as so many scurrilous laws in the South have done in recent years. But it expanded the opportunity to vote in a selective and unequal way. Low-population rural counties were free to offer Election Day registration, too, though it was not required, but many of the counties said the expense would be too great. Small counties are sometimes poor counties.

“In fairness and equity,” Der-Yeghiayan wrote, “such other less affluent counties should not have their representation in elections lessened based on their lack of funds.”

The judge’s injunction comes at a bad time, just weeks before the November elections. The Chicago Board of Elections, for one, has already programmed 4,000 electronic poll books for purposes of Election Day registration at polling places, and printed up related manuals, signs and other materials.

But if the appeals court does not see fit to expand the law’s reach to all counties, creating equal opportunity for all voters, then the injunction is only fair and right. At least until Der-Yeghiayan has considered the full merits of this case and made his final ruling.

As the judge wrote: “Ensuring equal protection of voters’ rights knows no deadline.”

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