Legislation to implement automatic voter registration for people seeking new or renewed driver’s licenses passed the Illinois Senate unanimously last week and awaits action in the House.
This is the second time around for the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. A 2016 version was vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who suggested safeguards that Manar has since incorporated in the new bill.
“That is without question going to lead more people, more citizens of our state, regardless of where they live, regardless of party affiliation, participating in our electoral process,” Manar told the Chicago Tribune. “And regardless who wins an election, we all win as citizens of the state of Illinois.”
Manar evidently is passionate about getting more Illinoisans on the rolls of registered voters.
But what a messed-up, politically self-serving electoral process those new voters will find themselves in.
Voters want competition and choices so their votes make a difference. Voters want privacy. And voters want concise, not endless, election campaigns.
In all of the above, Illinois’ political leaders have failed to deliver.
Competition and choices are limited in two ways.
• Gerrymandered districts for the Legislature and U.S. House stifle competition by creating “safe” districts. As proof, in November’s election, 59 percent of Illinois House seats were uncontested, as were 70 percent of Illinois Senate seats.
• Illinois has so many local units of government (nearly 7,000 of them) that they can’t find enough people to run for all the elected positions, let alone give voters competitive choices.
Voter privacy is invaded every two years in the March primary when voters are asked which party ballot they wish. The preference is dutifully recorded and kept in the county clerk’s office.
Illinois’ extended campaign season is the result of holding its even-year primary nearly 8 months before the general election. The petition filing season is 3 months before that, and the petition-circulating season starts several months earlier.
The result is a governmental system that must constantly operate in the shadow of the next election.
We wouldn’t mind if Manar’s automatic voter registration bill becomes law.
But if Manar and his legislative colleagues really want more people to vote, they should not stop there.
A redistricting reform constitutional amendment – like last year’s proposed Independent Map Amendment backed by more than half a million citizen signatures but struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court – should be introduced, approved, and put before the voters.
Illinois’ unwieldy layers of duplicative local governmental units should be consolidated.
An open primary system, where voters aren’t asked their party preference, should be passed.
And the state’s primary should be moved from March to August to condense the election season and free up more time for governing.
The problem with these reforms is, the ruling political class in Illinois doesn’t want them, so voters won’t get them.
In the end, we fear, automatic voter registration will wind up masquerading as real election reform while masking larger problems that fuel voter apathy.