A Blow to Voting Rights in Illinois

Election '16

Last week, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner rejected bipartisan legislation that would set up a system of Automatic Voter Registration and make it easier for millions of Illinois residents to exercise their right to vote.

It is disappointing that Gov. Rauner would stand in the way of such visionary reform, especially when the need to protect voting rights is front and center in the national consciousness. Court decisions in the past month from North Carolina to Kansas have rolled back laws that put unnecessary and discriminatory restrictions on the right to vote. These decisions specifically called out lawmakers for leaning on illusory claims of voter fraud to support voter IDs and other discriminatory obstacles to voting, obstacles that disproportionately hurt communities of color. 

Rauner used the same misleading arguments to justify blocking the law, singling out the possibility of non-citizen voting – even though voter fraud by citizens and non-citizens alike is miniscule, in Illinois and elsewhere. But Rauner ignored that fact, instead tapping into a dangerous national narrative used to spread fear and hatred against immigrants and other minority groups. 

Automatic voter registration, in fact, makes registration more secure and more accurate. Voter restrictions, not the phantom menace of voter fraud, are the real threats to our democracy. 

We hoped that Gov. Rauner would reject such specious claims and put himself on the side of more access to voter registration, not less. 

Rauner’s veto comes just days after a lawsuit was filed to try to block the state’s 2015 same-day voter registration law from going into effect this November. Like automatic voter registration, same-day registration reduces unnecessary barriers to registration so that all eligible voters can make their voices heard. The attack on same-day registration resembles recent efforts to suppress voter registration and turnout in other states. 

Now, with this one-two punch, Illinois’s democracy could take a hit, closing off viable paths to the polls for many of its citizens.

Rather than maintaining unnecessary barriers, lawmakers should be expanding access to the franchise. After all, we have seen what happens without such proactive efforts. In the past few years, 17 states enacted new laws restricting the right to vote, emboldened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted decades-old protections against discriminatory voting rules.

Until this veto, Illinois was set to go down a different path. A majority of Illinois lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, came together to strengthen our democracy. They supported a commonsense law that would simply add eligible citizens to the rolls by default when they sign up for a driver’s license or change their address – while including safeguards to ensure only eligible voters could be signed up and an option for residents to opt out of registration. The Illinois law would sweep aside barriers to registration that have disproportionately hit communities of color, young people and low-income communities for far too long.

In passing the law, the Illinois General Assembly followed in the footsteps of four other states who have passed automatic voter registration: Oregon, West Virginia, Vermont and California. And with automatic voter registration under consideration in a slew of states across the country, the Illinois law could serve as a model for other states to follow.

However, this veto doesn’t mean we should sit back and accept defeat. The right to vote—and a fair, efficient, and modern registration system that allows everyone to access that right—is too important for all of us not to fight for. 

Later this year, the Illinois General Assembly will consider overriding the veto in a special session. We urge Illinois lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to once again stand up and ensure automatic voter registration goes into law. 

Yet the message Gov. Rauner sent with his veto will not go unheard. He has put himself firmly on the side of those seeking to weaken voting rights, rather than strengthen them.

We hope the Illinois lawmakers who worked hard to pass this important legislation will vote in a different direction this fall. With the stakes high, it is critical Illinois ensures all eligible citizens can exercise their right to vote.

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