Rockford's Independent Newspaper

Jesse White apologizes for automatic voter registration issues

By Greg Bishop

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said Wednesday he put his employees on notice over problems with the state’s automatic voter registration program after it was revealed that more than 570 people who said they weren’t U.S. citizens were improperly registered to vote.

One of those 570 people actually voted, officials said at a hearing Wednesday in Springfield.

In his first public comments on the issue Wednesday at the state capitol, White apologized and said his office had corrected the issue.

“I’m angry at what happened,” he said. “I’ve put my staff on notice. Zero tolerance will be the order of the day with the Secretary of State’s office going forward.”

White’s office is in charge of implementing not only the state’s automatic voter registration program, but also issuing federally-compliant REAL ID cards and a new database to cross-reference lobbyist registration and political donations.

A union representing Secretary of State Employees picketed outside the capitol Tuesday. Deneen Taylor, representing 98 IT employees in White’s office, said management was failing.

“This technology and the demands are increasing yet the number of employees to hold those positions and make sure everything is up to date and working properly aren’t there and that rests on the Secretary of State and their hiring,” Taylor said.

Taylor said members were ready to strike for more money and improved hiring practices. White said his office is set to meet with union representatives next Friday.

White also said he may be asking lawmakers for more money.

“There’s a possibility that we may do that,” he said.

Other issues raised with the Secretary of State’s office included the forwarding over 4,700 16-year-olds to the Illinois State Board of Elections, something the office has since stopped. There were also several instances of people who opted out of the automatic voter registration program still being forwarded along to register to vote.

But it’s not just White’s office that’s supposed to be operating the automatic voter registration program. State law requires four executive state agencies under the control of the governor to implement the program, the Illinois Department of Human Services, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

The Illinois State Board of Elections said that since the program started, there have been 315 total applications through DNR, of which nearly 250 have completed registration. For DHS, the elections board says there have been 345 applications and 238 registrations. Those numbers are dwarfed by the Secretary of State’s total applications of 757,240, with nearly 700,000 of those being registered.

The difference between total applications and registrations was attributed to incomplete information, duplicate information, and people who didn’t qualify to register to vote.

“We haven’t had any issues with the other agencies [DNR and DHS],” ISBE spokesman Matt Dietrich said.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials explained how the agency was utilizing the automatic voter registration program.

“We arrange for automatic voter registration by providing a link to the ISBE website; given that, we don’t have data on the information you’re requesting,” Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Rachel Torbert said.

Of the two agencies that have not implemented the automatic voter registration process, Pritzker said it was a “very careful process.”

“Of course as each of these things have been revealed where there may have been a challenge, each of those agencies is looking to make sure that’s not affecting them and if it is that they’re addressing it,” the governor said Wednesday.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said the agencies were violating state law.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “They were supposed to be implemented previously, by 2019. That’s not happening. And it seems to me the two agencies that don’t have AVR up and going, as far as I know, don’t have plans in place to do it.”

Messages seeking comment from IDFPR and IDES were not returned.

As for the Department of Natural Resources, which forwards people to an online voter registration portal through the State Board of Elections, Butler said that wasn’t enough.

“Just telling someone to go the website to fill out a form isn’t automatic voter registration and I think we need to change that,” he said.

With early voting for the March primary beginning Thursday, Butler said the program should be suspended until it’s fully ready to go.

Both Pritzker and Secretary of State Jesse White have said they won’t suspend the program.

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other statewide issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience, and previously hosted “Bishop On Air,” a morning-drive current events talk show.

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