After more than two years’ efforts working with state agencies stalled, six advocacy groups representing the nonpartisan Just Democracy Illinois coalition have filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Illinois Secretary of State’s office (SOS) and the Illinois Board of Elections (SBOE) for failing to properly implement Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) and violating federal and state voting rights laws. The coalition is seeking a court order to fix the implementation problems.
The suit charges that implementation of the voter registration law, which was supposed to be implemented in July 2018, has been riddled with problems and massively delayed. Three elections have passed without AVR properly in place. Earlier this year, the Secretary of State’s office revealed that it failed to protect hundreds of people who identified as non-citizens from being accidentally registered. The agency also allowed several thousand 16-year-olds to begin the registration process and sent election officials the information of eligible voters who appeared to decline to be registered.
The lawsuit filed today charges SOS and SBOE with violations under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), the federal Voting Rights Act, and the Illinois AVR statute by failing to provide language access for those with limited English proficiency and failing to automatically update voter rolls when people have moved, among other problems. “The implementation problems layered on top of each other create serious barriers to voter registration access,” according to the complaint.
Ami Gandhi, Senior Counsel at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights which is representing the coalition, said: “By failing to implement AVR properly, these agencies are creating serious barriers to voter registration access.”
Lawrence Benito, CEO/Executive Director of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) said: “AVR is not the problem, the Secretary of State’s office is the problem. SOS was tasked with executing this law and instead it has put individuals at risk and undermined confidence in our voting system.”
Jay Young, Executive Director for Common Cause Illinois, agreed: “We’ve tried meeting directly with officials, giving testimony at public hearings, negotiating a resolution, and sending legal notices to address these issues – but these agencies aren’t meeting us halfway. This lawsuit is a measure of last resort to fix the ongoing problems with AVR implementation and improve the accuracy and security of the state’s voter rolls.”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago, CHANGE Illinois, Chicago Votes, Common Cause Illinois, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and Illinois Public Interest Research Group (Illinois PIRG) are steering committee members of the Just Democracy Illinois coalition, which advocated for passage of the AVR law in 2017. AVR was passed on a unanimous, bipartisan vote and signed into law by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The voter registration law was intended to provide fair registration access to over one million eligible, but unregistered voters in Illinois. By automatically registering eligible voters interacting with state agencies, AVR would also address longstanding racial disparities in voting access. According to US Census Bureau data, voter registration rates for Black, Latino, and Asian citizens lag behind the registration rate for White citizens in the state.
“Asian American communities across Illinois continue to lag behind in voter registration rates, largely due to language barriers. That is why compliance with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act is absolutely essential,” said Andy Kang, Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago. “This is about protecting our communities’ access to the ballot box.”
Niyati Shah, Assistant Director of Legal Advocacy at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC said: “We want Illinois agencies to fulfill AVR’s promise and expand voter access to these very communities that have been historically excluded from civic participation while complying with federal laws such as the NVRA and the Voting Rights Act.”
Attorneys at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and pro bono co-counsel say that the lawsuit is not intended to suspend the AVR program but rather to get a court mandate to fix these ongoing problems.