The partisan gridlock in Springfield is deeply troubling, especially for those impacted the most by the ongoing lack of a state budget. At times it can seem like our political system is so impaired that our elected officials can not tackle even simple problems facing our state.
In that context, the unanomous bipartisan support for automatic voter registration (AVR) is truly remarkable. On Monday, the Illinois House voted 115-0 to support AVR legislation, following a 48-0 vote in the Senate. After the bill goes back through the Senate to agree with the final amendment that was made in the House, the bill will be sent to Governor Rauner. Governor Rauner has not taken a firm position yet on the legislation, but the unanimous votes are a promising signal that his signature is likely.
With that, Illinois would take a major step forward in modernizing voter registration – making the process more accurate, efficient and secure. A national report estimatated AVR would add more than a million eligble voters to the rolls.
Not only is the policy itself good for Illinois voters, the way it has passed gives some hope that bipartisan agreement can be forged even on contentious issues. Building bipartisan support for changes to election law in any context is a challenge — there is always a question whether one party or another, or incumbants or challengers, will benifit from any given change.
So how did it happen? The Just Democracy Illinois coalition deserves tremendous credit. Just Democracy Illinois brought together a diverse array of partners and stakeholders and made a sustained case to leaders of both parties that good government and voting modernization deserved their support. Many told us along the way we would never succeed, which only deepened our resolve to prove them wrong. Credit is also due to our legislative sponsors and supporters, led by Senator Manar and Representatives Gabel and Fortner.
If Governor Rauner signs AVR into law, Illinois will emerge as a leader in voter registration and election administration modernization. In recent years, Illinois has passed a series of reforms, including online voter registration, Election Day registration, participation in the multi-state data sharing project ERIC, and now AVR. Illinois will be the first state to extend AVR beyond the DMV, to other social service agencies, extending the promise of a modern voter registration program to more constiuencies and communities.
While we pause to celebrate our success to date and encourage Governor Rauner to take the final step and sign AVR into to law, we must remember that passing laws alone is not enough. Laws must be implemented well. At the end of the day, we will judge our success on whether or not AVR delivers the benifits our coalition has campaigned around: a more accurate voter list, a more efficient process saving taxpayers money, and more eligible voters on the rolls.
Towards those ends, Just Democracy Illinois is just getting started. We’ll keep fighting to ensure AVR is implemented well and to pass other reforms to make our democracy work in Illinois.
State Director, Illinois PIRG
Abe Scarr is the director of Illinois PIRG. He is a lead advocate in the Capitol and in the media for stronger consumer protections, utility accountability, and good government. In 2017, Abe led a coalition to pass legislation to implement automatic voter registration in Illinois, winning unanimous support in the Illinois General Assembly for the bill. In 2019, he co-authored "Tragedy of Errors," a report documenting decades of mismanagement in the Peoples Gas pipe replacement program, and has built a large coalition to end wasteful gas utility spending. Before moving to Illinois in 2014, Abe worked as the state director for ConnPIRG, where he helped pass a landmark solid waste and recycling law. He also serves as a board member for the Consumer Federation of America. Abe lives in Chicago, where he enjoys biking, cooking and tending his garden.