Late Friday afternoon, Illinois’ Republican Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would have made the state the sixth in the nation to automatically register millions of voters.
Rauner had expressed some support for the policy back in May, telling reporters: “I am a big fan of simplifying the voter registration process and trying to get everyone who should be able to vote, to get them registered and vote.”
By early August, he had a different view. While expressing support for the general idea of automatic voter registration, he wrote in his veto notice on Friday: “The consequences could be injurious to our election system.” Urging the legislature to make reforms to the bill before sending it back to him, he cited the threat of non-citizens registering to vote and casting ballots.
Yet study after study has found such voter fraud to be vanishingly rare, and recent federal court rulings asserted that the threat of illegal voting is not a serious enough justification for laws that make it harder for eligible voters to participate.
The non-partisan watchdog group Common Cause Illinois estimates the policy could help add two million new voters to the states rolls. In a statement Thursday, the group’s lead organizer Trevor Gervais accused the governor of “playing politics with something as important as voting rights.”
“He wants to delay implementation until 2019, after the next gubernatorial election,” Gervais said.
Because the Illinois state legislature passed the measure with an overwhelming majority in early June, they can now vote to override the veto.
If they do, the state will launch a program in 2018 that automatically registers Illinois residents to vote every time they visit a Department of Motor Vehicles, office of Human Services, office of Healthcare and Family Services, the Secretary of State’s office, or an Employment Security office.
If Rauner had approved the bill, the state would have followed the lead of Oregon, California, West Virginia, Vermont, and Connecticut, which have all approved the policy over the past few years. In Oregon, the only state so far where the policy has gone into effect, registration and voter participation have surged. The primary had one of the highest number of voters in Oregon’s history, second only to 2008’s historic election. The turnout rate also bested Kentucky’s, which held its primary that same day.
Illinois residents hope the policy could do the same for their state, which has seen dismally low turnout in recent elections, including the one that put Rauner in office. Advocates for the measure also say it will save the state money and make the voting rolls more accurate.
“When I go to the DMV and I’m asked if I want to register to vote, I currently have to fill out a separate form, by hand,” Christian Diaz with the organization Chicago Votes told ThinkProgress. “I then give it to a state worker who types the information from the paper sheet into the computer system, even though the government has already collected that same information. Human error also presents a huge issue. So this will make it a lot more efficient.”
But Illinois Republicans have complained that the policy makes political participation too easy.
“I think it’s important for the voter to have a little bit of initiative to do what they need to do and not just automatically be signed up,” said Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), adding that he worried if voters effortlessly registered, they wouldn’t do the work of educating themselves about the candidates on the ballot.