Illinois Senate Democrats have proposed a plan to automatically register qualified residents to vote when they apply for a driver's license or some other form of state ID unless they decline.
Sen. Andy Manar, of Bunker Hill, said his proposal to change Illinois from a traditional "opt-in" voter registration state would reduce red tape, save money and increase voter participation.
"The current process creates an unnecessary barrier for citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote," Manar told a Senate subcommittee last week. "And it's an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars."
Critics aren't so sure. They worry that such a change could lead to automatically registering non-citizens, increased voter fraud and expense, and longer lines at drivers' license facilities run by the secretary of state.
Oregon became the nation's first state to adopt an automatic registration policy last spring without a single Republican vote in favor of the bill. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a similar law last week.
The plan in Democratic-leaning Illinois contrasts with efforts in many Republican-led states in recent years to restrict voter eligibility, such as by requiring voters to show specific forms of ID in order to vote. Republicans say such requirements make it much harder for people to commit in-person voter fraud. Democrats, though, say that kind of fraud is extremely rare and that the laws are really meant to disenfranchise groups that tend to support their party, including minorities and students.
Sandy Raddue, election integrity chairwoman for the Oregon Republican Party, said she thinks Oregon has made registering too easy. The new law raises concerns aligned with key GOP touchstones - voter fraud, privacy and the integrity of state computer systems, she said.
Census figures used by the Illinois Senate show that the state has 9.7 million residents 18 or older - and only 7.6 million registered voters. Last November, with one of the more heated gubernatorial races in recent memory, less than half went to the polls.
Under Manar's plan, people will be asked to register when they go to get a driver's license or state ID, or to update an address or change a name. If they agree, their updated and presumably accurate information will be passed on to election officials.
"We use computers for virtually everything in today's world, from depositing checks to chatting with friends overseas," said Sam Munger, director of outreach and partnerships for the State Innovation Exchange in Madison, Wisconsin. Most states "still rely on ink and paper for voter registration," he said.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton endorsed the idea this summer. Her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has a bill in Congress for national automatic registration. Along with Oregon and California, New Jersey sent a registration measure to Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP presidential hopeful, but he's criticized the idea.
All told, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed or are considering such measures.
Sen. Chris Nybo, of Elmhurst, said his Republican colleagues are not necessarily suspicious of a plot to drive more Democrats to vote. But he said the plan is concerning, particularly because people younger than 18 - the voting age - and others ineligible to vote can still get a driver's license or state ID.
"You have 15- and 16-year-old kids, and now in Illinois we have a system where undocumented immigrants can obtain driver's licenses, so you've got a lot of people obtaining driver's licenses that do not have the same rights to vote," Nybo said.
Barry Burden, a political scientist and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggested that the voter fraud fears are overblown, pointing out that the Secretary of State's office already knows more about voters - height, weight, eye color - than registration officials would ever know, he said.
"It's registration happening among people who have already been identified by the state as legitimate registrants," Burden said.
But Raddue, with the Oregon GOP, said it's an outdated state computer system that raises questions. And like opponents in other states, she is worried about the privacy of, for example, domestic-violence victims - who are protected under current registration rules - along with possible fraud. She said Republicans have no chance of repealing Oregon's law, which takes effect Jan. 1, but they want it delayed to ensure that it is properly implemented.
"Oregon has bent over backwards to allow people to register to vote online, voter registration drives, no photo ID required to register to vote," Raddue said. "It's not hard in this state. It's very accessible."
Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White has concerns. Spokesman Dave Druker said White's staff is unsure whether driver's facilities employees now have to be trained as election authorities, meaning more training and expense. And White is worried about reversing the gains he has made in reducing lines at driver's facilities.
Noah Praetz, director of elections for the Cook County Clerk's office, said voters would not be the only ones to benefit.
"Government can serve best with less bureaucracy," Praetz said. "An 'opt-in' system is no longer necessary."
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