A Western Illinois Republican Congressional candidate has partnered with a Chicago-based public-interest litigation group to challenge Illinois’ Election Day voter registration program, saying the state’s system is unfairly slanted to favor counties with the biggest populations and, by extension, to boost the likelihood of Democratic candidates succeeding at the polls. 

Patrick Harlan, of Galesburg, is the GOP candidate in Illinois’ 17th Congressional District, challenging incumbent Democrat Cheri Bustos, of East Moline. He is joined in his complaint, filed Aug. 4 in federal court in Chicago, by the Crawford County Republican Central Committee. Their attorneys are Jacob Huebert, Jeffrey Schwab and James McQuaid, of the Liberty Justice Center. Named defendants are the eight members of the Illinois State Board of Elections. 

According to the complaint, the state’s system for processing voter registration on Election Day is unfair and unequal in that it is not accessible to residents of the 82 Illinois counties where population is less than 100,000. That distinction constitutes an alleged violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the complaint said. 

Illinois did not allow voter registration on Election Day until a pilot program in 2014, which applied only to that year’s general election. The previous system was known as grace period registration, under which unregistered voters could register and vote after the traditional deadline up to three days before the election. These registrations took place at a county clerk’s officer or specifically designated site. 

The 2014 change effectively extended the grace period through Election Day, under which “a qualified person anywhere in Illinois could register to vote and then vote in person at the office of his or her county’s election authority or at a “permanent polling place” for early voting established by that county’s election authority. 

Less than a month after the 2014 election, the General Assembly — in strict party line votes — adopted legislation making Election Day registration permanent. Outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed the bill into law on Jan. 10, 2015. 

However, the complaint contends, the new law was substantially different from the pilot program in that it would allow a qualified person to register to vote, and then vote, in person at any of the following locations: the office of the election authority; a permanent polling place for early voting; any early voting site beginning 15 days prior to the election; or any polling place on Election Day. 

The law only mandates Election Day registration at every polling place in counties with populations of 100,000 or more. Counties with smaller populations that don’t use electronic poll books are not required to offer such registration so long as it is available at the main county clerk’s office and “a polling place in each municipality where 20 percent or more of the county’s residents reside if the election authority’s main office is not located in that municipality.” 

The complaint argues that Election Day registration meets its goal of increasing turnout, but says the way Illinois’ system is constructed “is likely to have partisan effects” because historically “Democratic candidates tend to perform better in high-population counties; Republican candidates tend to perform better in low-population counties.” 

The 17th District includes Carroll, Fulton, Henderson, Henry, Jo Daviess, Knox, Mercer, Rock Island, Stephenson, Warren and Whiteside counties. Portions of Peoria, Tazewell, and Winnebago counties also lie within the district. Harlan said he expects his support to come primarily from the smaller counties and contended his supporters “will not have the same opportunity” as those from Rock Island, Peoria and Tazewell counties, who are more likely to back Bustos. 

The GOP committee of Crawford County, population 19,505, offered a similar argument, since Election Day registration and voting will not be available throughout the county. 

“As a result,” the complaint alleged, “Crawford County electors — including some electors who would vote for Republican candidates in statewide elections — will not have the same opportunity to vote as electors in high-population counties. Some Crawford County residents who would register and vote for a Republican candidate in a statewide election at their polling place on Election Day, if they could, will not vote at all.” 

Harlan and the Crawford County committee want the court to declare the 2014 law unconstitutional and for the ISBE to direct election authorities in all 102 counties to not allow Election Day registration at any polling place. 

The Liberty Justice Center, on its website, described itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan public-interest litigation center that fights to protect economic liberty, private property rights, free speech, and other fundamental rights in Illinois and beyond."

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