How Illinois' Election Day registration became a partisan issue

Voters in highly populated areas of Illinois will have fewer options to register on Election Day this November after a federal judge on Tuesday temporarily halted broader registration rules that Republicans call unconstitutional.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
A woman looks up from her voting booth as U.S. President Barack Obama takes part in early voting at a polling station in Chicago, Illinois October 20, 2014. With approval levels hovering around record lows, Obama has spent most of his campaign-related efforts this year raising money for struggling Democrats, who risk losing control of the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 4 midterm election.

CHICAGO — Voters in highly populated areas of Illinois will have fewer options to register on Election Day this November after a federal judge on Tuesday temporarily halted broader registration rules that Republicans call unconstitutional.

Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan's move means there'll be no same-day registration on Nov. 8 at individual polling places in mostly urban areas like Chicago; voters instead will have to go to major county or election jurisdiction offices.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office immediately filed an appeal Tuesday. Wider questions about the constitutionality of the Democrat-led Legislature's 2015 expansion of same-day registration linger before the court.

More than a dozen other states have changed voting and registration rules in place for November, something election officials in Illinois and elsewhere warned will create "chaos" the night of the high-stakes presidential contest.

Illinois rolled out Election Day registration with a 2014 pilot program that required authorities to offer same-day registration in at least one location. Voters took advantage, with long lines seen in Chicago. The following year, lawmakers made it permanent and expanded it, requiring highly populated areas to allow voters register in their precincts on Election Day; roughly 110,000 people did so in the March primary.

Republicans sued in August, arguing the poll-level registration rules created an unfair and unequal system because voters in less populated and GOP-leaning areas of Illinois didn't have equal access. For example, a rural voter might have to travel longer to register at a clerk's office.

Der-Yeghiayan agreed with the Republican congressional candidate from north-central Illinois and the county party committee who brought the lawsuit.

"While it may be true that the polling place registration option can assist voters in certain populous counties, that option cannot be provided at the expense of lower population counties, thereby decreasing their political representation in Illinois," Der-Yeghiayan wrote. "The application of this legislation favors the urban citizen and dilutes the vote of the rural citizen."

His preliminary injunction was handed down without explanation during a brief hearing, stunning election attorneys and voter access groups who rifled through the 13-page order outside of the Chicago courtroom, looking for clues.

State Board of Elections general counsel Ken Menzel said it was surprising, as plans for the election, which is six weeks away, are well underway and same-day registration was allowed in the primary.

"The jurisdictions are going to have to scramble to figure out how to accommodate these people," he said.

Due to the temporary halt, the city of Chicago will have to go back to what it did in 2014, when there were five locations for voters to register on Election Day. That November, hundreds of people waited in line past the close of polls, leading to frustration and delayed results.

Overall, the change will impact voters in 21 of Illinois' 102 counties and five cities: Chicago, Aurora, Rockford, Bloomington and East St. Louis. Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen said rules have already been posted and materials printed for Nov. 8.

"At this late stage, this ruling creates chaos," he said.

Some clerks said politics was the motivator for this lawsuit, with similar debates over voter access rippling nationwide.

Cook County Clerk David Orr, a Democrat in a county with poll-level registration, called it a "thinly veiled partisan effort" to disenfranchise voters.

The lawsuit was argued by the legal arm of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative-leaning group that Gov. Bruce Rauner has donated to. The state's first GOP governor in a decade also has brought people affiliated with the institute into his administration.

The law expanding same-day registration was approved by a Democrat-led Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who lost to Rauner in 2014. Rauner declined to comment on the case Tuesday, telling reporters in Springfield that he supports increasing voter access as long as it complies with federal election law and keeps "integrity in the system."

Jacob Huebert, a Liberty Justice Center attorney representing the Republicans, dismissed the notion that it was political, saying the government shouldn't make it harder for some to vote.

"The judge order's restores a level playing field for this election," Huebert said.

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