Three Democratic state representatives joined voting rights advocates Monday to criticize Secretary of State Jesse White for failing to implement automatic voter registration in time for the November election — but the critics and White disagreed on whether the matter will wind up in court.
Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, and Rep. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, led the news conference at the Thompson Center criticizing White, who is currently seeking his sixth term.
White’s rollout of the program was initially planned for July, and would have been complete ahead of November’s general election. But after delays, it is now expected to be in place by mid-year 2019, according to White’s office.
The first phase of the program updated the registration process from a paper-based system to electronic, but hasn’t yet implemented “opt-out” automatic registration. Under the automatic voter registration process, eligible voters who visit Secretary of State facilities will be automatically registered unless they opt out.
“We think the vast majority of the heavy lifting has been done,” Dave Druker, a spokesman for White, said. “I don’t think that people are being hurt, if they want to register the option is very available.”
One reason the program wasn’t completed for the original July deadline was it’s connection to the rollout of Real ID, a federal identification program that Illinois is set to comply with by “early spring” next year, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Illinois was one of the states that requested an extension to comply with the program. Automatic voter registration became integrated with the Real ID program because it would verify the voter’s citizenship status and age without having the voter doubly asked those same questions.
“The bottom line is we just ask a little patience of the groups,” Druker said. “We share their goals, and we will be implementing it.”
Though the statute states “the changes made … shall be implemented no later than July 1, 2018,” Druker said “I don’t believe we missed a deadline” and “we have moved very aggressively.”
Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) advocate Hannah Kim said the door is open for legal action against the Secretary of State for non-compliance.
Druker said “hopefully it won’t come to that.”
Gabel was a lead sponsor of the automatic voter registration legislation that unanimously passed the Legislature in August 2017, making Illinois the tenth state to pass it. The year prior, Rauner had vetoed a similar bill, citing voter fraud concerns.
At Monday’s news conference, Gabel decried the impact the delayed implementation of automatic voter registration was likely to have on the state’s Nov. 6 election.
“We are looking at one million who will not be registered who could have voted this time,” Gabel said. “I believe it can be done, and should be done.”
Villanueva said that for her Southwest Side district with a large immigrant population, automatic voter registration would instantly expand voter access.
“There’s no reason for this delay,” Villanueva said, arguing the new law “would very much benefit the communities I represent.”
Voting rights advocates standing with the public officials Monday, representing Illinois PIRG, Chicago Votes and Just Democracy, said offers to provide additional resources to White’s office were turned down.
“They’ve had over a year now,” Kim said. “Originally it would have been in place for November elections, but for a myriad of reasons, some of which are technical … we don’t feel any of them are compelling enough [for the delay].”
White responded to the news conference in a written statement, saying he “will not be intimidated by threats as we continue to move forward with this new system.”
“The fact is the AVR program is up and running. It is going very well,” White said.
Kim, though, pushed back against White’s claim.
“Automatic voter registration is not up and running in Illinois,” Kim said. “Modernizing opt-in voter registration is different than implementing automatic, or opt-out, registration.”