Davis Investigates Automatic Voter Registration System Failures in Illinois

March 2, 2020 by Dan McCue
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., at a recent meeting of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. (Photo by Dan McCue)

In the wake of complaints that Illinois’ news automatic voter registration system is riddled with problems, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill, last week convened a congressional listening session to get a handle on the problem many fear is compromising voters’ rights.

“We’ve seen firsthand that our nation’s elections face threats from abroad, but sometimes even more concerning threats have occurred, through errors and bad practices, within our own election systems,” the representative said at the start of the session.

Davis, who is the top Republican on the Committee on House Administration and the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Elections, called the meeting to look specifically at a number of recent election-related errors that have occurred in the state since July 2018 — all related to automatic voter registration.

These have included a software glitch that allowed for the registration of 545 individuals who self-identified as non-citizens and were therefore ineligible to vote.

The switch to the new system also created a data-matching issue between the Board of Elections and Illinois Department of Corrections, an error resulting in 59 local boards of elections being told that 774 people who had previously been incarcerated could not vote in an election.

“Under Illinois law, you can’t vote while behind bars, but once you are released, you can register and vote,” Davis said. “Due to the data matching error, these voters were incorrectly categorized as ‘currently incarcerated’ when in fact they had completed their sentences and been released.”

Davis said the error was only discovered after unrelated issues with the automatic voter registration system were revealed.

Lastly, the representative said, the Secretary of State’s office mistakenly forwarded the names of 4,700 16-year-olds to the state Board of Elections, asking that they be registered to vote.

“This policy was unrelated to the software glitch, but it is indicative of the multiple errors that have occurred. Fortunately the state Board recognized the error and did not register them,” said Davis, who noted that in Illinois, 17-year-olds may register to vote if they will be 18 by the next general election.

Davis said while he understands administering a program like automatic voter registration “comes with its own complications” he is nevertheless concerned both about what’s happened in his own state and what could happen elsewhere in the future.

“If the Democrats’ election overhaul proposal becomes law, every state will be federally mandated to implement automatic voter registration,” he said. “My great concern, considering the errors we’re discussing, is that many states will simply prove unprepared to implement such a program.”

Six groups that are members of the nonpartisan Just Democracy Illinois coalition sued the Illinois Secretary of State and Board of Elections on Friday, claiming the failures of the new automatic voter registration is violating the National Voter Registration Act, the federal Voting Rights Act, and even the Illinois AVR statute.

“[These] problems, layered on top of each other create serious barriers to voter registration access,” the complaint says.

Ami Gandhi, senior counsel at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights which is representing the coalition, said, “By failing to implement AVR properly, these agencies are creating serious barriers to voter registration access.”

Lawrence Benito, CEO and executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights agreed, saying automatic registration isn’t the problem, “the Secretary of State’s office is the problem.”

“The office was tasked with executing this law and instead it has put individuals at risk and undermined confidence in our voting system,” Benito said.

Jay Young, executive director for Common Cause Illinois, called the lawsuit “a measure of last resort” to fix the ongoing problems with AVR implementation “and improve the accuracy and security of the state’s voter rolls.”

State Senate Republican leader Bill Brady called for Secretary of State Jesse White’s office to suspend the program “until all glitches, known and unknown, are fixed.”

As for Rep. Davis, he said the problems that have arisen in Illinois have undermined his confidence  that our federal government knows or understands the process for states to be forced to adopt complex programs like this.

“It’s a fundamental right of our nation, the ability to choose our leaders, and citizens across this nation deserve to have that right protected,” he said. “We should give them the confidence to trust in their election systems without fear of software glitches.”

Davis acknowledged that states take the lead on running their respective elections, even as the federal government provides them with “hundreds of millions of dollars” to safeguard and carry out their elections.

“Local election officials and state officials already work with the federal government on election issues … a listening session won’t resolve all problems immediately, but it’s key to making sure that we are all on the same page.”

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