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White apologizes for voter registration mistakes; Pritzker undeterred in push to make Illinois first primary

”I want to apologize to you and all of those who were impacted,” White told state lawmakers. ”There was no effort put forth to hide anything or to cook the books so to speak.”

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, left; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, in 2019.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, left, last March; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, in December. File photos.
Colin Boyle/Sun-Times; Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — Just hours after Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White apologized for a string of electoral snafus that included allowing at least one non-citizen to vote, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday the gaffes should not stop the state from taking the lead in future presidential nominating contests.

“Well, we’ve been running elections for an awful long time,” Pritzker told reporters.

Pritzker was questioned about his push to make Illinois the new first-in-the-nation state in light of the state’s own voter registration troubles at an unrelated news conference.

White made his apology at an earlier House hearing to get to the bottom of the problems in the state’s voter registration program – which included mistakenly registering hundreds of self-identified non-citizens, allowing 16-year-olds to begin the registration process and mistakenly striking former prison inmates from the voter rolls.

“I want to apologize to you and all of those who were impacted,” White told state lawmakers. ”There was no effort put forth to hide anything or to cook the books so to speak.”

Pritzker was questioned about the problems two days after he first suggested that Illinois, not its northwestern neighbor, should be the first state to vote in the presidential nominating process. Delayed results in the Iowa Democratic caucuses have angered many Democrats and re-ignited questions about what state should be first to vote in the presidential nominating process.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in December. File photo.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx filed motions to vacate more than 1,000 low-level cannabis convictions in December. File photo.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“I want to be clear with everybody, this state is a diverse state in so many ways, in ways that Iowa and New Hampshire are not,” Pritzker told reporters.

But even as Pritzker pushed for Illinois to move to the front of the line for the presidential nominating process, the state was still trying to figure out how self-identified non-citizens were mistakenly registered to vote.

Election officials had said 545 people, checked “no” on the driver’s license application citizenship question, but they were registered to vote anyway before the errors were caught. And 16 of those self-identified non-citizens went on to actually cast ballots in elections.

At a state House committee hearing Wednesday morning, officials with White’s office said a glitch in the Automatic Voter Registration program was the cause of the improper registrations.

Election officials confirmed during the hearing that one non-citizen voted in Downstate Champaign County in the 2018 general election. But they believe nine of the 16 self-identified non-citizens found to have cast ballots are actually U.S. citizens because they appear to have been legitimately registered to vote before the snafu, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the state electoral board.

“That means they already had signed a legal document attesting to their citizenship when they registered previously, which is the legal requirement for voting,” Dietrich told the Sun-Times later in an email. “That attestation stands despite their checking of the noncitizen box.”

The citizenship status of the other six who went on to vote despite checking the non-citizen box was still in doubt, Dietrich said.

White, who sat quietly as officials from his office answered most of the questions from the lawmakers, apologized, saying “the entire staff has been put on notice.”

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White in 2016.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White in 2016. File photo.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

“I think if this were to happen again, first I’d be fired, then we should notify the Legislature and the governor’s office,” said Nathan Maddox, senior legal advisor to the Illinois Secretary of State.

The Automatic Voter Registration program, which passed the General Assembly unanimously in 2017, allows motorists who apply for or renew their driver’s licenses to be automatically registered to vote.

However, at the time, some Republican lawmakers had reservations about the program given the potential for bugs.

State Rep. Keith R. Wheeler, R-Oswego, said White’s office should have done a better job doing a “stress test” before they rolled the program out.

“This is a situation that should have been anticipated,” Wheeler said.

Later, Pritzker spoke to reporters in Springfield after announcing he was releasing $50 million as a part of the state’s plan to extend broadband access.

The governor also said the state Legislature should look into expanding the Freedom of Information Act, which currently exempts the General Assembly from many records requests under the law.

“Look, I think that’s something worthy of being looked into,” Pritzker said. “I have not personally thought about the differences and why there should be a difference between the Legislature and the executive branch with regard to the revelation of internal documents.”

The question was prompted by a Chicago Sun-Times report that State Police executed a search warrant on Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office on Jan. 29. The search warrant, which the newspaper obtained through an FOIA request, was part of a sexual misconduct and stalking investigation into former state Rep. Jack Franks, who also currently serves as McHenry County Board chairman.

The allegations — involving an employee of the speaker’s office — date back to 2016, according to Madigan’s office.

Franks has not been charged with any wrongdoing and has told the Sun-Times he issued a “full denial” to the speaker’s office last year.