Guest Column: Same-day voter registration could help curb political corruption rate

By Dev Gowda

Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund on behalf of the Just Democracy Campaign (Illinois PIRG Education Fund, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, Common Cause Illinois, Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Chicago Votes, and Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights)

The “Land of Lincoln” has steadily been turning into the “Land of Corruption.” Recent data show the State of Illinois is the third most corrupt state, largely the result of bribery scandals and political cronyism.

Since 1976, 1,828 elected officials, appointees, government employees and a few private individuals have been convicted of public corruption in Illinois — an average of 51 per year.

The lack of a properly functioning democracy has many costs. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago estimate the direct cost of political corruption to Illinois taxpayers is greater than $500 million per year.

The constant stream of political scandals, as well as local stories about Election Day mishaps, has effectively disillusioned many voters. Increasing participation in our state’s democracy would help curb the political corruption rate. Unfortunately, Illinois has the second-lowest voter registration and voter turnout rates in the Midwest, barely beating out Indiana for last place.

One way to increase voter turnout in Illinois is by passing a bill providing for same-day registration (SDR). Currently, Illinoisans have to register to vote almost one month prior to Election Day. While Illinois does offer grace-period registration, this involves long lines, limited locations, and still means there’s an arbitrary deadline before the election. Voters who have moved or are new voters who didn’t understand the deadlines may be needlessly disenfranchised on Election Day.

SDR would let all citizens in Illinois register and vote at any Early Voting and Election Day polling location. SDR would allow Illinois to join 10 other states, plus the District of Columbia, in removing arbitrary and unnecessary deadlines that complicate the registration process.

Passing same-day registration will not only increase access to the ballot box for all eligible voters in Illinois, but it will also send a clear message that Illinois is moving away from a history of political gridlock and corruption to a new era of civic engagement and reform.

The effect of SDR in other states is encouraging. Four of the five states with the highest voter turnout in 2012 offered SDR. The average voter turnout rate was more than 10 percent higher in states with SDR than in other states.

Making the process to register and vote easier and more accessible is not a luxury; it should be the norm in a time when technology can ensure the integrity of the system while enfranchising tens of thousands of new voters. This is not about one political party or the other, but about how both parties control the rules of the game so we have unnecessary difficulties when we approach the ballot box.

Big money is welcomed into politics, while working residents are made to wait in long lines just to be given provisional ballots or are simply discouraged by an election system that makes voting a challenge, rather than a celebration of our rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Voting is a fundamental right in our democracy, and we expect our leaders to create the means to ensure that all eligible Illinoisans are able to register to vote and cast a ballot in each and every election. We are calling on Illinois lawmakers and local election officials, including the Rockford Board of Elections and Winnebago County Clerk, to make every voice heard by supporting same-day registration in Illinois.

From the April 30-May 6, 2014

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