By Carl Zielinski
While states like Ohio have successfully restricted early voting access, in the past three months Illinois has significantly eased the process of both registering to vote and casting ballots. In late June, the largely Democratic Illinois state legislature pushed through a bill that expands early voting days and hours, allows early voting without photo ID, establishes same-day registration, allows voters to register online, and eases the eligibility of college students to vote in statewide elections. The newly implemented early voting period now starts fifteen days before any primary or general election and ends two days before Election Day. The lack of a photo ID requirement stands in stark contrast to voter ID laws like those recently implemented in states like Texas and Wisconsin.
These changes to Illinois election procedure apply solely to the 2014 general election, which has caused Republican state legislators to question the law’s motives in a key election year. Democratic legislators maintain that they intend to extend the new voting law to subsequent elections after the trial run of the 2014 general election. They also tout the bill as increasing access to a basic democratic right. So do pamphlets distributed by the Illinois State Board of Elections that list the purpose of early voting as “encourag[ing] greater participation in the election.”
However, Republicans both inside Illinois and across the country maintain that such increased access is instead meant to shore up support for the state’s governor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Pat Quinn. Stopping in Illinois to campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie explicitly questioned the motives behind the law, stating that Governor Quinn is “in the toilet and needs as much help as he can get.” Interestingly, Rauner was supportive of the law as of early July – despite being unaware of its technical aspects.
As efforts to implement voter ID requirements and restrict early voting indicate, the groups affected to the greatest extent by these laws tend to vote in favor of Democratic candidates. However, how this new law will affect turnout remains to be seen. Governor Quinn faces a tough election for his second full term after the removal of former Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2009. Quinn barely edged out State Senator Bill Brady in the 2010 gubernatorial election, winning by less than one percent of the vote. An influx of early and student voters could help Quinn survive the coming election, or Rauner could ride into office on a wave of discontent over the state’s desperate financial situation.
The new law still suffers from some setbacks, such as limited available sites for early voting in most counties. Additionally, same-day registration requires traveling to a handful of sites established by each county for that purpose. Those voters hoping to take advantage of same-day registration may not be able to reach these centers, perhaps curtailing gains anticipated by Democratic legislators. Concerns also remain about the potential for a voter to register on Election Day in one county, cast a vote, and then do the same in another county. A history of voting irregularities in Illinois lends credence to this concern. Although Chicago now uses electronic poll books, smaller communities throughout the state may not have access to such safeguards. It will remain to be seen whether any irregularities related to the new law occur in coming elections.