Voting Rights Advocates Settle Claims with Secretary of State to Address Voter Registration Issues with Driver Services
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Six advocacy groups representing the steering committee of the nonpartisan Just Democracy Illinois coalition have reached a legal settlement with Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White to fix key problems with the rollout of Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) in Illinois.
“This agreement means that a lot of voters across Illinois who’ve been left out of the process will be able to access the ballot,” said Jay Young of Common Cause Illinois. “It strengthens our democracy at a time when many states are attempting to weaken it.”
“While AVR was intended to expand Illinois’ voting rolls in a fair, accurate, and secure way, the law’s implementation fell short of that,” said Senior Counsel Ami Gandhi of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which is representing the advocacy groups.
“This settlement creates a legally binding channel of communication between marginalized community members and government authorities who are held responsible for fulfilling that long-delayed promise,” said Andy Kang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Chicago.
Voting rights advocates have repeatedly raised alarms about state agencies’ failure to timely implement AVR since it was signed into law in 2017. After multiple elections had passed without AVR fully in place, the groups filed a lawsuit in February 2020 setting forth violations by the Illinois Secretary of State’s office under the National Voter Registration Act and the federal Voting Rights Act. For example, earlier that year, the Secretary of State’s office revealed that for a period of time it mistakenly sent information on a number of non-citizen community members and age-ineligible individuals to Illinois State Board of Elections, who then sent it to local election authorities.
“For us community advocates, AVR still represents an opportunity to narrow Illinois’ persistent racial gaps in voting access and voter registration. If we want to increase civic engagement, we need to fix the law’s implementation right away,” said Stevie Valles of Chicago Votes.
The settlement streamlines the voter registration process and includes:
- Language assistance: The agreement requires Illinois election authorities to comply with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates language assistance in areas with high numbers of non-English speakers. For example, Drivers Services Facilities in Cook County must display instructions for registering to vote in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, and Urdu. Additionally, state election authorities must submit language translations for community review before finalizing through specialized vendors.
- Protections for age-ineligible and non-citizen community members: The settlement requires the Secretary of State’s office to screen out any individuals who are not U.S. citizens or are age-ineligible before their information is sent to the State Board of Elections. It also requires that applicants who decline to register to vote be notified that their decision will remain confidential and will be used only for voter registration purposes, among other disclosures required by the NVRA.
- Community engagement: The Secretary of State’s office will provide regular updates to the advocacy groups, answering questions and considering the groups’ input on the implementation of the settlement and AVR processes.
“These may seem like technical fixes, but they add up to countless eligible voters who will now be able to register and cast their ballots in Illinois – if implemented correctly,” said Abe Scarr of the Illinois PIRG Education Fund.
“Moving forward, we will be paying close attention to how the Office of the Secretary of State will continue to implement AVR under Jesse White and whoever succeeds him when he retires after next year's elections,” said Madeleine Doubek of CHANGE Illinois.
“We’ll know this settlement is successful if citizens who’ve been historically excluded from civic participation get access to the ballot, and if vulnerable community members who are not eligible to vote are protected,” said Fred Tsao of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
“Providing voter registration services in-language will open the franchise to limited-English proficient voters when they interact with driver services, both online and in-person. In-language material is crucial to our community members and will allow them to make an informed choice,” said Niyati Shah of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC who is representing the advocacy groups.
The six advocacy groups are represented by attorneys Charles F. Smith, Corbin Houston and Michael Tomczyk; Aneel Chablani and Ami Gandhi of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights; and Niyati Shah of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.