A federal judge has prohibited Illinois’ most populated
counties from continuing to register voters at polling places on Election Day,
saying the way the system is currently set up in the state violates the rights
of people voting in Illinois’ more rural regions.
On Tuesday, Sept. 27, U.S. District Judge Samuel
Der-Yeghiayan slapped a preliminary injunction on the implementation of an Election
Day Registration program, created under a state law which required all Illinois
counties with populations greater than 100,000 to implement a system to allow would-be
voters to register to vote at the same time they cast ballots. The law allowed
counties with fewer than 100,000 people to not implement the system, if they
lacked the so-called electronic polling book system required to make such a system
The legislation was enacted in 2014 on a straight party-line
vote, with all Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly approving the measure
and all Republicans opposing. The law was signed by Democratic former Gov. Pat
Quinn shortly after.
The same-day voter registration system had been in place on
a “pilot program” basis for the 2014 election.
However, earlier this summer, the Liberty Justice Center, a
legal advocacy organization, challenged the program and the law which
established it. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Patrick Harlan, a Galesburg
resident and Republican congressional candidate in Illinois’ 17th
Congressional District in western Illinois, as well as the Crawford County
Republican Central Committee, argued the law and the EDR system violated the
constitutional rights of voters in the counties with lower populations,
essentially creating a system in which voters in the larger counties – which lean
Democratic – would have a greater opportunity to vote than voters elsewhere.
In response, a number of groups, including the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a number of organizations advocating on behalf
of racial minorities and immigrants, filed amicus briefs with the court, defending
the law and arguing the program was needed to encourage voter turnout.
Der-Yeghiayan, however, said boosting turnout in one area at
the expense of another clearly violates the equal protection rights of those living
in the counties with fewer people.
“While it is a desirable goal to make the voting process
more readily available to United States citizens in Illinois and to encourage
them to vote, that goal must apply equally to all United States citizens in
Illinois,” the judge wrote.
The judge also brushed asides attempts by the law’s
defenders to argue the law should be allowed to stand because nothing prohibits
the less populated counties from enacting EDR programs of their own.
While conceding the law does not stop the other counties
from participating in the program, the judge said the courts should consider
the real-world implementation of such a program, which could require lower
population counties with more “limited resources” to roll out a program which
has already required large counties, like Cook County, to spend “large sums of
money to implement the EDR.”
“In fairness and equity, such other less affluent counties
should not have their representation in elections lessened based on their lack
of such funds,” Der-Yeghiayan said.
And while defenders of the law argued blocking the EDR law
and program would impinge the rights of Illinois voters, the judge sided with
the plaintiffs, who argued the law served to “dilute” votes cast in the state’s
less populated regions.
“Illinois is made up of more than the Chicago metropolitan
area and other high population areas,” the judge said. “Equality under the law
does not end at the city limits. The Constitution guarantees equal voting
rights to all United States citizens in Illinois, not simply those in counties
that have the highest populations and have organizations such as those
represented in the Amicus Briefs to stand up for their enhanced voting rights.”
The judge further said, even though the ruling arrives
shortly before Illinois’ voter registration deadline, the decision should not
“This court should not be asked to wait until the next
election to address this issue of fairness and equality in voters’ rights,” Der-Yeghiayan
said. “Ensuring equal protection of voters’ rights knows no deadline. Justice
demands that this court act now in order to prevent unfairness in the upcoming
“Constitutional protections cannot be compromised solely for
the purpose of expedience or convenience.”
The judge also declined to order the EDR program requirement be extended statewide, as suggested as an alternative by the ACLU, saying this would "impose an untenable financial burden" on the smaller counties that do not have an EDR system in place at their polling places.
Following the ruling, Jacob
Huebert, attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, said the ruling should signal
to Illinois lawmakers who wish to create an EDR system to follow the lead of
such states as Wisconsin and Iowa, who provide EDR to all voters in all
counties in their states.
“Today the court recognized
the unfairness of guaranteeing a voting right to some voters but not others.
The court ruled that if Illinois is going to have Election Day voter
registration at polling places, it should be available statewide – and it
should be fair. The government shouldn’t make it harder for people in some
parts of the state to register and vote,” said Huebert, in a prepared statement.
Spokespeople for the various
groups defending the EDR program and law decried the decision, saying it would
hurt the rights of voters with about two weeks to go before the voter
registration deadline in Illinois.
“We are concerned about the impact of this decision, changing the
rules of voting so close to this hotly-contested election,” said Edwin Yohnka,
spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois. “We must continue to use every available
method to ensure that every eligible voter in our state can access the ballot –
not create obstacles to the franchise.
“We encourage the State of Illinois and the Cook County Clerk –
parties in this matter – to explore all legal options to protect voters’