Same-day voter registration at issue in Illinois lawsuit

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A federal lawsuit has raised questions about whether Illinois’ new Election Day voter registration rules are constitutional. | AP file photo


A federal lawsuit has raised questions about whether Illinois’ new Election Day voter registration rules are constitutional, a situation that could complicate how polling sites are run this November.

Illinois tested same-day registration in the 2014 governor’s race, with all election authorities required to offer it in at least one location. It was popular, with long lines on Election Night, particularly in Chicago. When lawmakers made same-day registration permanent the next year, they expanded it, ordering highly populated areas to make it available at all polls.

That change is at the heart of a federal lawsuit brought by Republicans, who argue it’s an unfair and unequal system because voters in less populated and GOP-leaning areas don’t have equal access. They’re asking a judge to end all precinct-level Election Day registration, which would impact voters in 21 of 102 counties and five cities: Chicago, Aurora, Rockford, Bloomington and East St. Louis.

“It seemed obviously unfair to skew election results in this way,” said Jacob Huebert, an attorney with an organization representing a north-central Illinois Republican congressional candidate and party committee. “The purpose is obviously to boost Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout.”

Democrats dismissed the allegations on turnout, and voters’ rights groups have fought back. Five, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, filed a brief in court Wednesday, suggesting such a change in a presidential-election year would create chaos and “leave thousands of people unable to vote,” Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement.

The next court hearing is Sept. 27, though the judge could rule earlier.

An injunction wouldn’t impact same-day registration offered at major sites like county clerk offices, according to the lawsuit. But fewer sites could again mean longer lines, delayed turnout results and confusion since poll-level Election Day registration was allowed in the March primary and more than 110,000 Illinois residents signed up.

More than a dozen states, including Wisconsin and Colorado, offer same-day registration. In Illinois, November will be the first general election where Illinois’ new rules will apply.

Democrats, who controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office when same-day registration was approved, say the extension was done to improve voter access efforts and counter Republican-led efforts in other states they say curb eligibility, like voter ID laws. Democrats also questioned the intent of the lawsuit.

“It’s a typical attempt at voter suppression and they’re grasping at straws,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Michael Madigan, the House speaker who serves as state Democratic Party leader.

To offer same-day registration, jurisdictions must have over 100,000 people, like 20 counties and five cities do, or use electronic poll books like Grundy County.

State Board of Election officials named in the lawsuit declined to comment on pending litigation.

Legal and political experts question the timing of the lawsuit, which is so close to the election, as well as its backers. The Illinois Policy Institute’s legal arm, the Liberty Justice Center, is arguing the lawsuit. First-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s foundation has donated to the group and some in his administration previously worked there. Rauner’s spokeswoman didn’t return a request for comment.

Law professor Ann Lousin at John Marshall Law School in Chicago called it a “very good” constitutional case but with an “odd” twist as it seeks to end same-day registration at all polls instead of expanding it statewide.

“They don’t usually ask the court to take away the benefit from the other guy,” she said.

Patrick Harlan, a truck driver and Knox County tea party candidate facing an uphill battle in trying to unseat two-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, brought the lawsuit with the Crawford County Republican Central Committee in southeastern Illinois. Neither county has Election Day registration at polls.

Huebert explained that they didn’t want to add costs for county clerks in smaller areas, and that the timing was due to when the issue came to their attention.

“It’s just not fair. We have to make it fair for all,” Harlan said.

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