POINT: Should automatic voter registration be enacted in Illinois?
Yes, state has an opportunity to become national leader in promoting democracy
By ANDY MANAR
The national debate over how elections are run typically breaks down on party lines, with Republicans supporting voter ID laws and limiting early voting opportunities and Democrats supporting efforts to expand the electorate and make it easier for eligible voters to cast their ballot. One election reform, however, is increasingly gaining bipartisan support: automatic voter registration.
Illinois recently became the latest state to pass automatic voter registration with broad bipartisan votes in both the Illinois House (86-30) and Senate (50-7), following Vermont and West Virginia. Gov. Rauner now has the opportunity to make Illinois a national leader in modernizing elections by signing Senate Bill 250 into law.
While some of the mechanics of the bill are complicated, the concept of automatic voter registration is simple: state agencies use reliable information they already have about eligible voters to register them to vote or update their voter registration. At its core, automatic voter registration is about government efficiency and maintaining an accurate and secure voter list. It should be no surprise, therefore, that both Democrats and Republicans are getting behind this simple but powerful election reform.
Automatic voter registration will add more eligible Illinois voters to the rolls. Getting more of the estimated two million eligible but unregistered voters in Illinois on our voter lists will make it more likely they will participate, empowering local communities to choose the leaders that best reflect their values. It’s hard to predict how many voters will get registered under automatic voter registration — a recent national report predicted just over one million in Illinois.
Simply getting people registered, of course, does not necessarily mean they will vote. By getting more voters on the list, however, candidates and parties can reach out to them and try to sway voters to their side. Nonpartisan efforts to register voters can shift resources to voter education and turnout. Only one state, Oregon, has had an election since implementing automatic voter registration. In their recent primary, preliminary analysis shows that young voters registered through automatic voter registration turned out in equal numbers as their peers registered through “traditional” means. The group that saw the biggest boost in turnout through automatic voter registration was young Republicans.
Opponents have argued that people should have to make some effort to get registered to vote and that making it “too easy” will result in uneducated voters participating in our elections. This is an argument against democracy. In the United States, to be an eligible voter you must be a resident of the state, 18 by Election Day and a citizen. Unfortunately, our country has a dark tradition of erecting additional barriers to eligible voters exercising their most fundamental right in a democracy, whether through property requirement, poll taxes or literacy tests. Our democracy is moving in an opposite direction, and that should be celebrated.
Automatic voter registration will also make our voting list more accurate and secure. An estimated one in eight voter registrations in America is either invalid or contains significant errors. These typically arise when voters move but do not update their address, or through sloppy handwriting on paper forms. These errors can have significant consequences for eligible voters. In the last presidential election, more than one million eligible voters tried but were unable to vote because of registration errors.
By updating our list more frequently, by catching when people move and updating their registration and by supplying local election authorities with clean electronic voter registration applications, we can cut down on the “dead wood” on our voter lists, making them more accurate and secure.
With automatic voter registration, we can also better ensure that only eligible voters are registered. When an individual registers to vote at a state agency today, they are asked to legally affirm they are eligible. Local election authorities rely on that affirmation to determine whether the individual is eligible or not. With automatic voter registration, election authorities will also have access to the identification individuals have shown to state agencies, giving them more information and another tool to determine whether or not an individual is eligible. Local authorities will be the only ones making a final determination of eligibility and will only register individuals who either document or legally affirm they are eligible.
Making voter registration more efficient and accurate will help local election authorities run better elections. Typically, at voter registration deadlines, local election authorities receive a wave of last minute registrations, forcing them to work their staff overtime or hire temporary staff to process the applications in a timely manner. By getting more voters registered on a regular, ongoing basis, automatic voter registration will “smooth out” the registration process for election authorities.
It will also mean fewer voters relying on Election Day registration. In the March 2016 primary, Cook County found that 75 percent of voters who registered on Election Day did so using a state ID whose address matched the address at which they were registering. With automatic voter registration, those voters would already be registered, cutting down lines on Election Day.
Finally, for the same reasons automatic voter registration will make our lists more accurate and secure and ease election administration for local election authorities, it will, over time, save taxpayers money. One big cost saving is in moving away from paper registrations to an electronic voter registration system. Of the 29 states that tracked cost savings of electronic and online registration, there is unanimity that they reduce costs. By increasing the efficiency of local elections officials, automatic voter registration will also save money for local government.
The multitude of benefits of automatic voter registration, from increasing voter participation to making our voter lists more accurate and secure, to saving taxpayers money, is why people from all political philosophies are embracing it. With so much going wrong in Springfield, automatic voter registration is a bright spot of bipartisan collaboration. Gov. Rauner should follow the lead of his Republican colleagues in the General Assembly and sign SB250 into law.
Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, represents the 48th Senate District in Illinois.