Candidate filing closed Monday for the March 18 Illinois primary election, but regardless of the names on the ballot I can offer this prediction: Turnout will be disappointing. Take the last midterm primary in 2010, which featured hot races for U.S. Senate and governor, yet only drew 26 percent of registered voters in Cook County.
We must do more to encourage participation for future voters. I believe that effort starts with a technology-driven voter registration renaissance. By today’s rules voters must actively seek out a method for registering to vote when they turn 18, become a citizen, register for the first time, and every time they move for the rest of their lives. It’s an outdated model rife with bureaucratic red tape.
Let’s shake up our thinking and move toward efficient automatic registration. Let’s capture every eligible citizen and create an inclusive Illinois voter list by harnessing transactions citizens already have with government. And to catch anyone still not on the rolls, let’s implement Election Day registration. I’m calling this approach “All In.”
One key piece to the puzzle is already under way. Thanks to Gov. Pat Quinn and bipartisan support in the legislature, Illinois will get online voter registration next summer, allowing voters to register or update their registration with just a few clicks of their computer, smartphone or tablet. Election officials across the state are optimistic online registration will enhance the accuracy of the voter rolls, increase participation and improve efficiency by reducing data entry, printing and postage costs. Plus, it will provide citizens with the convenience they’ve come to expect.
Next, Illinois should join a multistate data-sharing organization created by the Pew Research Center called ERIC, or Electronic Registration Information Center Project. ERIC compares voters across state lines by looking at driver’s license data, Social Security and change of address records. The result? Cleaner and more inclusive lists. This is the ultimate anti-fraud fighter. ERIC allows election officials to match a Jane Smith in Chicago with the same Jane Smith who moved to Baltimore. In Washington state, for example, ERIC identified 30 percent more dead voters on its rolls than the old system. What’s more, ERIC assists in registering people who are eligible but unregistered — an estimated 2 million people in Illinois. Seven states — both blue and red — are signed up already; many more are poised to come on board.
We should also build on the National Voter Registration Act to seamlessly convert most government transactions into voter registration address updates. We can register voters not just at the secretary of state’s drivers’ facilities, but when citizens seek medical or food assistance, when they file income taxes, register a firearm or apply to get married. This is easy information to share between agencies. Let’s do it now.
Let’s harness these government interactions for multiple purposes, simplify the process for voters, and build a more complete registration list. Likewise, we could adopt 16-year-old pre-registration like Hawaii, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina and Rhode Island use. And we could follow Northwestern University’s lead by incorporating voter registration into student orientation and graduation.
And for the small number of voters who are not captured by those means, we should become the 12th state to implement Election Day voter registration similar to what we now offer at some early voting sites.
These proposals will take cooperation between government agencies, legislative authority, administrative changes, a bit of work, and a lot of vision. The advent of online voter registration and interstate data sharing will catapult us to a new era where there are no barricades to voter participation. The voter registration renaissance is within our reach.