The voting community has celebrated some key election victories in 2014. Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Nebraska all passed bills to modernize registration and expand access to the ballot. Last week, Illinois became the fifth state to improve voting this year, after the legislature passed a bill to implement a pilot same-day registration program for the 2014 election cycle. While a laudable step in the right direction, Illinois lawmakers can go even further by enacting comprehensive reforms to modernize the state’s registration system.
As the fifth most populous state in the union, Illinois registration and voter turnout rates are middling at best. In 2012, for example, the Land of Lincoln ranked 27th in registering voters. Worse, less than 62 percent of those eligible actually cast ballots. This was below the national average, even with home state favorite President Obama on the ballot. The primary culprit is the state’s antiquated voter registration system, which largely relies on 19th century technology.
In 2013, the Illinois legislature made headway in modernizing their outdated election system by enacting online registration. Building on this positive momentum, there was hope as the 2014 legislative session came to an end last week that the state would embrace comprehensive reform, especially when so many other states already use modern, efficient election management tools.
On the second to last day of their legislative session, lawmakers in Springfield passed a bill that would implement same day registration for the 2014 election. While this reform is beneficial, it is only temporary. Lasting and meaningful progress would have permanently enacted Election Day registration and electronic voter registration — a process by which eligible individuals who interact with a range of public service agencies can be digitally registered to vote as part of the same transaction.
Although many state agencies, including the department of driver services and public service offices, already offer citizens the opportunity to register to vote, they are reliant on clunky, ink-and-paper systems. A voter needs to fill out a paper form and a driver services office sends that form to a local election official.
Under a modernized system, however, eligible citizens who conduct business at these agencies — for example, a Department of Human Services or Department of Revenue office — would have the opportunity to register to vote seamlessly as a part of their existing transaction, without the need to complete redundant paper forms. These agencies already collect the information county clerks use to register voters. All the agency staff would need to do is electronically transfer that information directly to election officials. By adopting this reform, Illinois would have joined 27 other states that have chosen to streamline and digitize this process at some or all of its public service agencies.
Electronic voter registration would help Illinois sign up more voters. But it would also increase efficiency and save money by ensuring more accurate and complete voter rolls, with fewer data entry errors, mistranslations from illegible handwriting, and outdated voter files. By integrating the process and eliminating paper forms, electronic registration can boost registration as much as eight-fold. Moreover, doing so would cuts costs: Processing a paper registration costs 83 cents, compared to just 3 cents for an electronic one.
While Illinois took a step toward reform, Massachusetts took a big leap into the 21st century by enacting legislation for online registration, 11 days of early voting, mechanisms to update a voter’s move registration status when they move, and pre-registration of 16– and 17-year-olds, among other provisions. These reforms are a win-win for voters and election administrators alike.
In 2014, we can bank on our phone but it still takes ink and paper to register to vote. Illinois’ passage of a same-day registration pilot program is welcome news, but hopefully comprehensive voter registration reform is just around the corner.