Online voter registration draws fire from some local election officials

Voters fill the polling room at Quincy University during the November election. (H-W File Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Feb. 15, 2013 8:43 am Updated: Mar. 1, 2013 10:15 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

Gov. Pat Quinn wants would-be voters to skip visits to the courthouse by completing voter registrations on their home computers.

"We must move our election process into the 21st century," Quinn said during his State of the State address last week.

West-Central Illinois election authorities have different ideas about what Quinn wants and how it will work. It's going to depend on the details.

Pike County Clerk Donnie Apps said his county does not have a website or the budget to hire a full-time information technology expert to set up a site.

"We're not online," Apps said. "If they pass it, we'll do our best to follow the law. We're just like a lot of the small counties that don't have websites."

Hancock County Clerk Kerry Asbridge has a big problem with online registration. How are people going to provide proper identification that meets the state's requirements?

"Right now we have mail-in voter registration. I personally go over that paperwork and more than 90 percent of them have missing information or do not have the documentation needed under Illinois law," Asbridge said.

When people come into the county clerk's office, Asbridge can see the person's face and compare it with a driver's license or other photo ID. He feels confident that in-person registrations are done properly. Backup identification, such as a utility bill, can confirm a person's permanent address.

"There's been a lot of controversy over voter identification laws. If the registration office did the job properly, only qualified people should be registered," Asbridge said.

Supporters of online registration say up to 2 million people in Illinois are not registered to vote, even though they meet state requirements. Online registrations would be especially helpful in attracting 18- to 24-year-olds who have smartphones or use the Internet.

Adams County Clerk Georgia Volm said the technology in her office is up to the task of doing online registration, but it will be up to software and a statewide database to prevent voter fraud.

"We're right at that step to be able to do" online registration, Volm said.

Proposals to lessen the burden of voting have at times been viewed skeptically by Republicans as efforts to benefit low-income and minority voters who often mark Democratic ballots. But many states that allow online registration are Republican leaning, and Illinois' GOP leadership doesn't object to the governor's proposal -- though questioning whether it should be a legislative priority at a time when the state has its plate full with so many serious financial challenges.

"The more people voting, the better for us," Pat Brady, Illinois state GOP chairman, told the Associated Press. "But to spend three breaths or a nickel ... to work on this is just nothing but a waste of time."

Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly said legislators must focus all their efforts on fixing Illinois' worst-in-the-nation pension crisis and a huge budget deficit. The state has a $96 billion pension obligation shortfall and owes between $8 billion and $9 billion in overdue bills.

Quinn, who is up for re-election next year, hasn't actively been exploring the online voting issue. His office hasn't proposed any details for how an online system would work.

His spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, said the general concept is that voting-age individuals would be allowed to register online if their registration information, such as date of birth and citizenship, is verifiable. The applicant also must have a verifiable signature on file with the secretary of state's office or a statewide voter registration database.

Secretary of State Jesse White hasn't been consulted by Quinn, White's spokesman Henry Haupt said. Neither has the Illinois Board of Elections, according to spokesman Jim Tenuto, who believes the idea could boost voter registration rolls.

A former state elections chief, Ron Michaelson, said preventing fraud should be paramount. He said voters wanting to register online should be required to cast their ballot in person the first time they vote to verify identification. That requirement already is in place for anyone who registers by mail.

Apps and Asbridge said politicians can't seem to quit tinkering with election law.

"The problem I have with some of this stuff is that people who don't run elections are making laws about how to run elections," Apps said.

Asbridge said he would like to see even two years where governors and legislators "quit sticking their nose into the election code," often with effective dates or requirements that are either impossible or very costly, Asbridge said.

Anderson, of Quinn's office, said the online option could help prevent data entry mistakes. Sometimes county personnel have difficulty reading an applicant's handwriting when copying the information into the voting rolls. Other times applications are missing information and registration can't be completed.


The Associated Press provided information for this story.






At least 15 states, including Colorado, California and Nevada, allow voters to register online.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has estimated that nearly 769,000 people nationwide registered online to vote in the 2010 midterm elections. The number went up by almost 78,000 compared to the 2008 presidential election.

Democratic leaders in Congress have introduced proposals to force states to have voter registration websites, but the measures face a tough battle in Washington's partisan climate. Some opponents argue that election matters should be decided by individual states, not Congress.

The cost of the website hasn't been determined. Nevada's site cost $248,000 but took advantage of federal funding. It went live statewide last fall.