By Leonor Vivanco and Rick Pearson
A federal judge Tuesday blocked Election Day voter registration at polling places in Illinois, declaring a state law allowing the practice unconstitutional because it created one set of rules for cities and another for rural areas.
Voters will still be able to register Nov. 8 and cast a ballot for president but only at a limited number of sites, including the county clerk's office, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
The ruling, handed down on National Voter Registration Day, is the latest front in a broader battle between Democrats led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Republicans led by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Democrats pushed through the same-day registration law in the lame-duck session that followed the November 2014 election, weeks before Rauner took over from then-Democratic-Gov. Pat Quinn. It was billed as a way to get more people involved in the democratic process after a trial program resulted in long lines, particularly in Chicago, where it was used at five sites by nearly 2,900 people, some who waited hours to vote.
Republicans cried foul, suggesting the new registration method could be used for voter fraud. Last month, a Republican northwestern Illinois congressional candidate sued with the help of the Liberty Justice Center, which was founded by the Illinois Policy Institute, a tax-exempt organization allied with much of Rauner's agenda. Prior to becoming governor, Rauner donated more than $500,000 to the policy institute.
This fall, Rauner is attempting to use his wealth and that of his friends to erode Democratic supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate. Rauner also is a supporter of Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who is in a tough re-election bid against Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
The suit challenged a law that required counties of more than 100,000 people that use electronic books to record voter registration to allow for Election Day registration at every polling place. Counties without electronic polling books and below 100,000 population had to at least provide same-day registration at a centralized location.
The suit contended that allowing the process only in more heavily populated urban counties would benefit Democratic candidates "who primarily draw their support from counties with populations of 100,000 or more."
The case ended up before U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush. In issuing a preliminary injunction, the judge found that "while it may be true that the polling place registration option can assist voters in certain populous counties, that option cannot be provided at the expense of lower population counties, thereby decreasing their political representation in Illinois."
"The application of this legislation favors the urban citizen and dilutes the vote of the rural citizen," wrote Der-Yeghiayan, who added, "Illinois is made up of more than the Chicago metropolitan area and other high population areas. Equality under the law does not end at the city limits."
The law was in effect for the March primary, when more than 110,000 people registered to vote, supporters of the law said. The backers contended the federal court injunction, coupled with Rauner's recent veto of a measure that would have made voter registration automatic upon getting a new or renewed driver's license, amounts to voter suppression.
"To suspend election day registration and suppress the vote less than two weeks before the voter registration deadline will hurt communities across Illinois who were counting on being able to register and vote on Nov. 8," Trevor Gervais, lead organizer for Common Cause Illinois, said in a statement.
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners already was preparing staff, equipment and signs for Election Day in-precinct registrations, including programming electronic poll books, printing instruction manuals and beginning classes for poll workers, spokesman Jim Allen said.
"The timing of this ruling is sure to create chaos," Allen said in an email. "If this ruling stands, our task will be to develop alternative programs to serve voters -- and prevent lines, confusion and disenfranchisement."
The ACLU of Illinois and Democratic Cook County Clerk David Orr echoed the disenfranchisement note. The office of Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said it would appeal the ruling.
The ruling comes as online voter registration in Chicago and statewide had spiked more than tenfold in recent days, thanks in part to a Facebook push urging people to register in advance of National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday.
Since early September, Chicago elections officials received an average of 150 new or updated online voter registrations daily, Allen said. The number skyrocketed to more than 1,600 Friday, he said. Over the weekend, about 5,000 people registered online to vote in Chicago.
Statewide data showed more than 30,000 online registrations Friday, up from 2,800 the previous day. The momentum continued throughout the weekend, with 9,000 registrations Saturday and 5,000 on Sunday.
A Facebook post popped up in news feeds Friday, encouraging people to register and taking them to vote.USA.gov, where they can enter their state and get directed to their state voter registration page.
Local election officials are waiting to see whether Monday night's debate between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and Tuesday's voter registration events -- including a rally at Daley Plaza and a registration drive at the CTA's Pink and Green Line Morgan stop in the West Loop -- continue to fuel the surge in registrations.
The most effective way to mobilize people to register or to vote is direct contact from a trusted friend -- even on Facebook -- rather than candidates or political parties, according to Zachary Cook, a political science professor at DePaul University.
"This latest Facebook post, it wasn't just that people saw a reminder to register, but I suspect a lot of people posted it and re-posted it. That kind of social pressure can be effective," said Cook, who clicked on it to change his voter registration address.
Such a mechanism could be the future of voter registration drives but won't completely replace the need for in-person registration events, because some people are not on Facebook and not all states offer online registration, he said.
With more people expected at the polls for the presidential election than the primary, the city elections agency is urging people to cast ballots during the early voting period, which begins this week, or by mail to help keep the lines short on Nov. 8, Allen said.
Early voting begins Thursday at the Chicago elections board, 69 W. Washington St. On Oct. 10, operations will move to the former Walgreens space at 15 W. Washington St., to accommodate more touch-screen voting machines to handle more voters. On Oct. 24, early voting will be offered in all 50 wards.
The deadline to register online to vote in the presidential election is Oct. 23, Allen said. After that, voters can sign up in person during what's referred to as "grace period" voting, which continues through Election Day. While the new injunction blocks same-day registration at polling places, voters still can register that day at other sites.
(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune