Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Illinois continues to expand the franchise by putting voter registration on campus

On Independence Day, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law SB 3012 that extends the franchise to more citizens by putting voter registration and early voting on the campuses of public universities.

The important language of the law reads:

10 ILCS 5/1-20 new
Sec 1-20. Public university registration and voting pilot project. For the 2010 general election, each appropriate election authority shall conduct grace period registration and early voting in a high traffic location on the main campus of each public university within the election authority's jurisdiction. 

I predict that tens of thousands of citizens will vote this November who otherwise would not have done so because of this law.

This is particularly important because public universities are built around pedestrians, and many of the staff and students don't have automobiles. That makes traveling to the county clerk's office which often requires a car more of a pain than it should be in order for a citizen to register and vote.

I testified in favor of earlier versions of the bill (those did not limit the law to November of this year as a pilot program; such is the nature of legislative compromise as those did not pass) and found that opponents to the bill believed that requiring the local election administrators to offer grace period registration and early voting on the campuses of public universities was both unwarranted and unwise. People should figure out how to get to the county clerk's office if they miss the regular registration deadline of a month before the election, and if most first-time voters have never heard of a county clerk and wouldn't have guessed that they need to appear before an official in a relatively anonymous layer of local government in order to vote, well, too bad for them.

After all, it costs money to offer voter registration where lots of unregistered citizens work and study. Better to spend that money elsewhere and keep the burdens that we place on citizens relatively high in order for them to exercise their fundamental right.

I take a different view.

I think any barrier between a citizen and her ballot is an enemy of democracy. Our job is to snuff out the enemy. Opposing this law or other laws like it (and I'm sorry to report that most Republican legislators opposed the bill rather vociferously) is disenfranchisement. It's offensive to the best ideals of our Republic.

The entire operation of voter registration -- where citizens need pre-approval from the government in order to vote for the people who will run the government -- is a major barrier to democracy and should be viewed with deep suspicion. The convenience of government bureaucrats in processing registration data is far less important than ensuring every citizen has the opportunity to vote. The relatively successful run of extending voter registration opportunities over the law eight years in Illinois under Democratic control has been implemented over the opposition of many election administrators and most Republican legislators. It has been a success of democracy over bureaucracy.

I understand there is a benefit-cost assessment in all government administration, and that we will hit a point of diminishing returns on how many additional voters we can attract with the next use of taxpayer dollars to make elections more accessible. That's certainly the argument some of the election administrators have been making. But we need to recognize that in the United States, the government does so little work to prepare the registration list and essentially waits for the citizen to figure out what obscure local government office is in charge of voter registration to process the paper. Most governments in the Western world take it upon themselves to prepare an accurate registration list instead of putting that burden on the citizen. In the United Kingdom, government employees go out and knock on doors to make sure all citizens are registered! In Canada, they proactively mail out voter registration applications to people they think are eligible and unregistered. Some countries combine existing government databases of citizens' names and addresses, generated from things like drivers' licenses and tax returns, to prepare the voter registration list with updated information, instead of expecting the citizen to update their information with each separate layer of government. So the small steps that the Illinois General Assembly and now Governor Pat Quinn are requiring local election administrators to do in setting up voter registration and early voting on a college campus really pale in comparison to what election administrators in other countries do on a regular basis without any fuss.

This November, Illinois will take some bold steps to expand the franchise by putting grace period registration and early voting on college campuses. It's telling how far we have to go in election administration that actually putting government services like voter registration in the place where people who are most likely to use them actually are like a college campus is a bold step, but so it is. Reform only happens incrementally, and the progress of SB 3012 in extending the ballot to tens of thousands more Illinois citizens is consistent with the spirit of democratic revolution of our Independence Day.

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