Illinois Defends Same-Day Voter Registration

By Lorraine Bailey

CHICAGO (CN) – Illinois told the Seventh Circuit that the state’s law requiring high-population counties to offer Election Day voter registration does not discriminate against Republican voters.

Illinois filed a 40-page brief with the Seventh Circuit late Thursday, defending its law requiring all counties with a population over 100,000 people to allow citizens to register immediately before voting.

“The statute challenged in this case does not deny, infringe, or inhibit anyone’s right to vote. On the contrary, it enhances the right to vote by making it possible for more people at more locations than ever before, in both large and small counties, to register on election day,” according to the brief, signed by Illinois Solicitor General David Franklin.

There are 20 counties in Illinois with a population over 100,000, which account for 85 percent of the state’s population. Five counties with populations under 100,000 also allowed same-day registration on Election Day 2016.

The Republican Central Committee of Crawford County in downstate Illinois, and western Illinois Congressional candidate Patrick Harlan, sued the state in August, claiming the law at issue only benefits urban Democrats.

Harlan, who ended up losing his election bid, argued the law discriminates against the Republican Party and violates the 14th Amendment, since high-population counties tend to vote for Democrats.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan granted a preliminary injunction Sept. 27, finding that allowing the current scheme to remain in place for the November election would cause irreparable harm to voters in low-population Illinois counties. It was appealed the same day.

The Seventh Circuit reinstated same-day Illinois voter registration in early October, permitting voters to both register and vote on Nov. 8, 2016. The court also declined to expedite the appeal, finding that the issue would not be moot after the November election.

Illinois told the Chicago-based appeals court on Thursday that Der-Yeghiayan’s injunction “would make it harder for more than five out of every six Illinois citizens to vote, while eliminating burdens on voting for precisely no one… It would be ironic indeed if plaintiffs were permitted to obtain such an injunction in the name of vindicating voting rights.”

The state’s brief argues the law does not discriminate because small counties can offer same-day registration as long as they adopt the electronic voting technology needed to implement it.

Many small counties choose not to provide Election Day registration because the necessary technology is costly. However, residents of those counties can still register on Election Day at the county’s clerk office, or at an early voting site.

The incremental expansion of Election Day registration is a result of the “state’s compelling interest in enabling as many qualified voters as possible to register and vote while avoiding excessive burdens on low-population counties that do not yet have electronic poll books,” Franklin told the Seventh Circuit.

The solicitor general out-and-out rejected the Republicans’ expert’s opinion that the law has a partisan motive.

“Their expert concluded only that it is ‘quite possible then that Illinois’ [Election Day registration, or EDR] scheme will have the added effect of diminishing GOP votes,’ without attempting to quantify the magnitude, or degree, of such an effect (if it exists) or examining whether would-be GOP registrants in smaller counties – in light of their age, residential stability, socioeconomic status, or other factors – would be likely to benefit more from polling-place EDR than from centralized EDR. His bare, tentative conclusion about possible effects falls far short of establishing a prima facie case of discriminatory purpose,” the brief states. (Emphasis and parentheses in original.)

Franklin told the Seventh Circuit it should not second-guess the Illinois Legislature’s decision on how to enable as many qualified voters as possible to register and vote, unless it found a gross error in lawmakers’ judgment.

“At all events, the district court’s injunction – which eliminates EDR at the polls for the entire state – is surely not responsive to any constitutional concerns the statute might theoretically raise,” the solicitor general concluded. (Emphasis in original.)