A federal judge has prohibited Illinois’ most populated counties from continuing to register voters at polling places on Election Day, saying the way the system is currently set up in the state violates the rights of people voting in Illinois’ more rural regions.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan slapped a preliminary injunction on the implementation of an Election Day Registration program, created under a state law which required all Illinois counties with populations greater than 100,000 to implement a system to allow would-be voters to register to vote at the same time they cast ballots. The law allowed counties with fewer than 100,000 people to not implement the system, if they lacked the so-called electronic polling book system required to make such a system work.
The legislation was enacted in 2014 on a straight party-line vote, with all Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly approving the measure and all Republicans opposing. The law was signed by Democratic former Gov. Pat Quinn shortly after.
The same-day voter registration system had been in place on a “pilot program” basis for the 2014 election.
However, earlier this summer, the Liberty Justice Center, a legal advocacy organization, challenged the program and the law which established it. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Patrick Harlan, a Galesburg resident and Republican congressional candidate in Illinois’ 17th Congressional District in western Illinois, as well as the Crawford County Republican Central Committee, argued the law and the EDR system violated the constitutional rights of voters in the counties with lower populations, essentially creating a system in which voters in the larger counties – which lean Democratic – would have a greater opportunity to vote than voters elsewhere.
In response, a number of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a number of organizations advocating on behalf of racial minorities and immigrants, filed amicus briefs with the court, defending the law and arguing the program was needed to encourage voter turnout.
Der-Yeghiayan, however, said boosting turnout in one area at the expense of another clearly violates the equal protection rights of those living in the counties with fewer people.
“While it is a desirable goal to make the voting process more readily available to United States citizens in Illinois and to encourage them to vote, that goal must apply equally to all United States citizens in Illinois,” the judge wrote.
The judge also brushed asides attempts by the law’s defenders to argue the law should be allowed to stand because nothing prohibits the less populated counties from enacting EDR programs of their own.
While conceding the law does not stop the other counties from participating in the program, the judge said the courts should consider the real-world implementation of such a program, which could require lower population counties with more “limited resources” to roll out a program which has already required large counties, like Cook County, to spend “large sums of money to implement the EDR.”
“In fairness and equity, such other less affluent counties should not have their representation in elections lessened based on their lack of such funds,” Der-Yeghiayan said.
And while defenders of the law argued blocking the EDR law and program would impinge the rights of Illinois voters, the judge sided with the plaintiffs, who argued the law served to “dilute” votes cast in the state’s less populated regions.
“Illinois is made up of more than the Chicago metropolitan area and other high population areas,” the judge said. “Equality under the law does not end at the city limits. The Constitution guarantees equal voting rights to all United States citizens in Illinois, not simply those in counties that have the highest populations and have organizations such as those represented in the Amicus Briefs to stand up for their enhanced voting rights.”
The judge further said, even though the ruling arrives shortly before Illinois’ voter registration deadline, the decision should not be delayed.
“This court should not be asked to wait until the next election to address this issue of fairness and equality in voters’ rights,” Der-Yeghiayan said. “Ensuring equal protection of voters’ rights knows no deadline. Justice demands that this court act now in order to prevent unfairness in the upcoming elections.
“Constitutional protections cannot be compromised solely for the purpose of expedience or convenience.”
The judge also declined to order the EDR program requirement be extended statewide, as suggested as an alternative by the ACLU, saying this would "impose an untenable financial burden" on the smaller counties that do not have an EDR system in place at their polling places.
Following the ruling, Jacob Huebert, attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, said the ruling should signal to Illinois lawmakers who wish to create an EDR system to follow the lead of such states as Wisconsin and Iowa, who provide EDR to all voters in all counties in their states.
“Today the court recognized the unfairness of guaranteeing a voting right to some voters but not others. The court ruled that if Illinois is going to have Election Day voter registration at polling places, it should be available statewide – and it should be fair. The government shouldn’t make it harder for people in some parts of the state to register and vote,” said Huebert, in a prepared statement.
Spokespeople for the various groups defending the EDR program and law decried the decision, saying it would hurt the rights of voters with about two weeks to go before the voter registration deadline in Illinois.
“We are concerned about the impact of this decision, changing the rules of voting so close to this hotly-contested election,” said Edwin Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois. “We must continue to use every available method to ensure that every eligible voter in our state can access the ballot – not create obstacles to the franchise.
“We encourage the State of Illinois and the Cook County Clerk – parties in this matter – to explore all legal options to protect voters’ rights.”