Illinois discloses fresh problems with voter registration

Illinois elections officials disclosed fresh problems Wednesday with the state's automatic voter registration program, including at least one eligible voter who said she registered to vote but ended up on an opt-out list.

The program is already under fire for mistakenly registering over 500 people who indicated they weren't U.S. citizens, of which 15 people voted in 2018 and 2019 elections. Election officials said at least eight of the people have long voting histories and were likely U.S. citizens, leaving seven voters in question. The individuals involved were applying for standard drivers' licenses at secretary of state's offices.

Details were scarce on the new issues, disclosed at a State Board of Elections meeting.

Brenda Glahn, an attorney with the secretary of state, said registrations of eligible voters who appeared to decline to be registered were still sent to election officials. The problems stem from those applying for a REAL ID, which requires proof of citizenship.

Kyle Thomas with the State Board of Elections said the information of 297 people who appeared to have opted out of automatic voter registration was still sent to election officials and 286 were registered. The problem was discovered in August of last year. Election officials said they addressed the issue in October, and they no longer receive the data of people who opt out.

One voter told election officials she had wanted to to be registered and had a secretary of state receipt saying she had done so, but she wasn't in the system when she checked with her county clerk.

The issue, disclosed at the board meeting, prompted further questions that secretary of state officials said they were investigating.

"Do the people really want to opt out or do they want to register to vote?" Glahn said. "We are researching what is causing that issue.”

Automatic voter registration was signed into law in Illinois in 2017 with bipartisan support. But implementation has lagged behind schedule for the complex program that involves different processes depending on the type of identification a person applies for.

Republicans have called to suspend the program, but Democrats who run the state have no plans to do so. Government watchdog and immigrant rights groups have also expressed concerns about voter integrity and unintended consequences for immigrants. It is illegal for noncitizens to vote in U.S. elections. The consequence can be deportation.

Six good government groups - who were concerned about the early delays in the program - sent a legal letter to Secretary of State Jesse White this week demanding answers about the changes.

“Our coalition’s attempts to engage the Secretary of State’s office in a process of accountability and transparency have been stonewalled time and again," Jay Young, Executive Director for Common Cause Illinois, said in a statement. "'They’ve given us no way to verify the few claims they’ve made about fixing AVR.”

Secretary of State legal adviser Nathan Maddox said a programming error involving coding led to the mistaken registrations.

“I have no excuse,” he said at the meeting "It is a serious mistake and we deeply regret it.''

The registrations were for people who visited secretary of state offices between July 2018 and December 2019. The secretary of state's office, a key player in automatic voter registration, discovered the error last month and contacted election officials. The office publicly acknowledged the error earlier this month.

Elections officials speculated that many of the people mistaken checked a “no'' box on an electronic key pad asking if they were citizens when they meant to exit the system. Secretary of state officials said they're looking into adding an “exit” button.

Elections officials have canceled 371 of the 545 mistaken voter registrations in the seven counties involved. In assessing the damage, there have been disagreements over the numbers. Earlier this week, state election officials said there were three outstanding voters in Chicago, while city election officials said it was two. Neither could explain the discrepancy. Election officials confirmed Thursday that there are two voters in question in the city.

A legislative hearing on the topic planned for Thursday in Springfield was rescheduled to next week.