Skip Navigation

Gov. Rauner Likes to Modernize Stuff. Why Not Voter Registration?

Automatic voter registration makes a big difference, streamlining the registration process for voters and election officials alike.

August 11, 2016

Cross-posted at Crain’s Chicago Business

Gov. Bruce Rauner came into office hoping to use his business acumen to shake up Springfield with private-sector principles. Two years in, partisan politics and fundamental disagreements over the role of government have meant some solutions still seem far off. But when it comes to the business of running elections, the governor doesn’t have to look far for a solution. He has one right on his desk.

In June, the General Assembly passed an automatic voter registration bill, S.B. 250, with broad bipartisan support. The governor has until tomorrow to act. If he does, Illinois would be the sixth state to embrace the reform.

Gov. Rauner has not indicated what he will do, but his decision should be simple. Signing the legislation can immediately upgrade Illinois’ elections with a policy straight out of Silicon Valley.

Right now, voter registration puts the burden on voters. They generally need to fill out a paper form to sign up and repeat the process every time they move.

Automatic registration improves this process in two key ways: It makes it opt-out instead of opt-in (so citizens are automatically on the list unless they don’t want to be) and makes it electronic. These small tweaks make a big difference, streamlining the registration process for voters and election officials alike.

Opt-outs work because our brains are hard-wired to choose the default option. That is why we use them for things like 401(k)s and organ donation—most people want to use these programs but otherwise might not enroll. We know it works for voter registration as well. Oregon implemented AVR and has quadrupled new registrations. Call it auto-pay for democracy.

Electronic registration saves money, increases efficiency and boosts security. Illinois already uses some electronic systems, but automatic registration takes it a step further. Digital systems mean less paper forms and fewer staff hours processing them. One Arizona county reduced the cost of registration from 83 cents per transaction to 3 cents by going fully electronic while improving accuracy.

This is exactly why businesses are switching from paper to digital systems. Visit a bank and there’s no paper involved—or to do it all from your phone. Pay for a coffee using an iPad and only get a paper receipt if you want one. In Chicago, you can hail a ride in a car, or even rent a bike, without opening your wallet. It is good business sense. It can work for elections as well.

Leaders have already recommended taking lessons from the business world and applying them to our elections. President Obama convened an election reform panel that included executives from Deloitte and Walt Disney. One of its big recommendations? Streamline voter registration with electronic tools.

Gov, Rauner has already formed a Department of Innovation and Technology to modernize government administration and make it more efficient. Automatic voter registration would do that for our elections.

Of course, all new technologies require safeguards. Not everyone wants to register, and it is important to only sign up eligible citizens. But the bill includes an easy opt-out for those who do not want to be on and it uses reliable eligibility information. That is one big reason the bill got support from Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly.

Gov. Rauner said he is a big fan of making registration simpler. That makes sense—customer service is good business. Now it can be good government, too.

Hoy McConnell is executive director of Chicago’s Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. Jonathan Brater is counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

(Photo: Thinkstock)