FILE - Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

Illinois’ automatic voter registration system, now the subject of a federal lawsuit, isn’t likely to be fully operational before the November election, advocates involved in the litigation said.

Several advocacy groups filed suit over the implementation of the state's automatic voter registration program by Secretary of State Jesse White’s office. The program was supposed to be implemented by July 2018, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court’s northern district.

“Unfortunately, the promise of voter modernization and inclusivity has not only gone unfulfilled, it now appears that even basic voter registration services are mishandled in disregard of repeated calls for transparency and accountability by non-partisan organizations in the state,” the lawsuit claimed. 

It alleges the state violated both Illinois and federal laws and seeks to force Illinois into a court-supervised agreement for the implementation of the program and grant the plaintiff organizations damages for the time and effort they had to direct into the issue. No dollar amount was specified.

The automatic voter registration program passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by former Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017. It requires the state’s motor vehicle facilities and two other state agencies to automatically register eligible customers to vote, allowing them to opt-out rather than opt-in as they did previously. 

Supporters of automatic voter registration say they weren’t expecting to have to continue fighting to implement the program after it had been enacted by Rauner.  

“This lawsuit is really about trying to get the state to actually follow, not just the law that we passed but also other federal laws that are designed to protect voters,” said Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois. 

Young said he understood the difficulty of implementing the expansive program in tandem with the heavy technological lift required by White’s office to implement and maintain the REAL ID, which will be required to fly domestically starting Oct. 1. Passengers will also be able to fly using a passport.

Also at issue is the ongoing labor dispute between White’s office and his information technology staff. Represented by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the staff responsible for the aforementioned programs is seeking better pay and benefits similar to other state workers and could walk off the job any day. White recently said his office was continually in talks with the union.

At this point, Young said he sees little chance that the automatic voter registration program will be fully functional by November.

“Our talks have broken down,” he said. “We’re going to miss November of 2020. It could be the most transformational election of my lifetime and to not have this policy that we thought we had in place, to not see the effect in Illinois, is extremely disheartening.”

State officials won't comment on the suit but say they've registered more than 700,000 people through the automatic voter registration program.

The Just Democracy Illinois steering committee includes Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Chicago, CHANGE Illinois, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Chicago Votes, Common Cause Illinois, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant & Refugee Rights, and Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

Regional Editor

Cole Lauterbach is a regional editor for The Center Square covering Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington. For more than a decade, Cole has produced award-winning content on both radio and television.