Republicans call for suspension, audit of automatic voter registration
Reps. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, and Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, call for suspension and an audit of the state’s automatic voter registration program during a Capitol news conference Wednesday. While both lawmakers voted for the program’s passage in 2017, they said several recent problems with its rollout have created too many questions for it to continue without a thorough investigation. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)
Elections board: More than 1,100 applicants ‘erroneously categorized’ as opting out of registration
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — A pair of Illinois House Republicans called for suspension and an audit of the state’s automatic voter registration program after it was revealed that more than 1,100 REAL ID applicants were “erroneously categorized” as opting out of registering to vote.
The automatic voter registration program was passed in 2017 with unanimous support in the General Assembly and signed into law by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. More than 800,000 people have registered to vote as part of the program.
It allows anyone renewing their license to be automatically registered to vote unless they opt out, and the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office shares that information with the Illinois State Board of Elections, which shares it with local voting authorities who complete the registrations.
But this week the Illinois State Board of Elections informed 87 local election authorities in an email that 1,151 eligible voters were incorrectly listed as opting out of the automatic voter registration program even though they should have been registered.
The two downstate Republicans who called the Capitol news conference Wednesday criticized the communication between the elections board and secretary of state and said they were upset they had to learn of the recent mistake from news reports. WCIA-TV in Champaign first reported on the letter this week.
“(Automatic voter registration) is a complete mess today,” Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said. “And I think, for myself personally, you know, we've been assured for over two months now that problems have been fixed, yet problems continue to come up. I've lost complete confidence in the secretary of state being able to carry out this program.”
The letter from the elections board informed the local election authorities of the error and directed them to a database where the voters in question could be found. It also recommended the voters be allowed to cast ballots in the upcoming primaries.
Dave Druker, a spokesperson for the secretary of state, noted any impacted voters would have the ability to vote via same-day registration if the issue was not rectified before the March 17 primaries.
In a phone call Wednesday, Druker said he was told by IT professionals the confusion in a “vast majority” of the cases stemmed from “conflicting information” given by automatic registrants who received the same form twice and gave different answers to registration questions.
“Essentially, we'd have situations where people on different parts of the form answered ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on the voter registration in terms of coming in and getting a driver's license,” he said.
The letter from the elections board noted that the affected voters had applied for REAL ID licenses, which are licenses that comply with federal travel guidelines. Druker said answering the automatic registration question differently on the REAL ID or state ID cards and standard license forms could have led several applicants to answering the question differently on each form.
“They may have started the form already and said that they wanted to sign up for voter registration,” he said. “And then when they got the second form with the REAL ID and they put ‘no’ down. Well, then we've got the two in our system.”
Matt Dietrich, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said that office was made aware of the issue by a county clerk who relayed a voter’s registration discrepancy. The elections board discussed the issue at a public meeting in January, he said, and it forwarded the information to the secretary of state, which prompted the review and eventually the Monday letter.
Druker said the situation is now being monitored “very closely” and issues with conflicting information will be rectified in a timely manner, as opposed to piling up into the thousands before being addressed.
The improper categorization follows other issues with the rollout of the automatic registration program, including the incorrect removal of nearly 800 former inmates from voter rolls and the registration of more than 500 self-identified non-citizens, although only one non-citizen has been confirmed as having voted.
Republicans have also questioned a previous secretary of state policy through which the office forwarded the information of 16-year-olds to the elections board only to have it immediately denied from progressing any further.
On Wednesday, Butler was joined by Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, in calling for the suspension and an audit of the program.
“If they're not going to be forthright, then it falls to the Legislature to do that. And that's what we do, our role is holding them accountable, making sure the systems are implemented properly,” Bourne said. “And if they're not willing to come forward and do an audit on their own, then that's something that the Legislature can do.”
The pair, who both noted they support automatic registration in theory, also called for more legislative hearings on the matter. Butler’s House Bill 5224 calls for the suspension of the program until the end of 2021, and his House Resolution 827 would require passage by only one chamber to initiate an external audit of the program.
But Druker and Dietrich stood by the program and their implementation of it, noting it would take an act of the Legislature or court action to suspend it.