Illinois Voter Registration Policy: An Analysis

Illinois voter registration has undergone several changes throughout election history (Cain). Intended to create a fair, impartial, and non-partisan registration system, the Illinois policy has developed stringent requirements for voting in local, state, and federal elections. Despite a surface appearance of equal-opportunity and relative justness, the Illinois voter registration policy has implicit flaws, which confound the process, proving counterproductive to the policy’s purpose (Jackson).

The Illinois voter registration policy requires all Illinois citizens who wish to vote in local, state, and federal elections to register as voters in their respective counties. The registration process must be completed at least twenty-seven days before the election in which the potential voter wishes to participate. In order to qualify as a registered voter, one must meet the following criteria: 1) must be a U.S. citizen, 2) must be at least eighteen years of age on or before election day, and 3) must have been a resident of the precinct for at least thirty days prior to the election (CBEC). Those wishing to register may do so at a number of locations, some of which include the County Clerk’s office, any township office, some schools, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, public aid offices, and health department offices (CBEC). At the time of registration, each individual must present two current forms of identification, one of which must bear the person’s current address. If a person chooses to register by mail, that person must vote in person for the first time, unless he/she is disabled or serving in the military. After registration is completed, and the voter receives his/her registration card in the mail, the voter becomes a permanent, registered Illinois voter, unless he/she moves to a new address or changes his/her name (CBEC).

Some confusing stipulations during this process occasionally prevent legitimate voter registration, which ultimately leaves a number of people unregistered, and thus unable to cast a vote in a given election (Hayduk). For instance, a person who changes residence within twenty-seven days prior to an election, and within the same voting precinct, is allowed to vote on a full ballot only is he/she signs an affidavit swearing his/her identity, address, and registration are valid (SBE). Similarly, if a person moves within the same precinct more than thirty days prior to an election and has failed to transfer registration, he/she is allowed to vote only for candidates competing for federal office, upon completing a change-of-address document (SBE). However, if a person moves more than thirty days before an election, “has moved out of the previous municipality under the board of election commissioners,” and failed to transfer registration, he/she is not allowed to vote (SBE). Any abuse of the registration process is considered a Class 4 felony, subjecting perpetrators of a fine of $25,000, as well as the threat of one to three years in a state penitentiary (Sanford).

By preventing people from voting, the Illinois voter registration policy inadvertently skews the voting pool (PFAWF). Voter discrepancy, the inconsistency between a voting population’s representation of its state in an election and the actual majority political inclination of that population, can create devastatingly inaccurate representation of that state in an election (Freeman). For instance, Chicago is known for its overwhelmingly Democratic political tendency. The city is partisan to the degree that it has developed a reputation for repressing or otherwise nullifying Republican votes (Grimshaw). Chicago’s dense population of nearly 2,900,000 comprises a significant portion of Illinois’ total population of 12,500,000 (U.S. Census Bureau). If a large number of Democratic Chicago votes were invalidated due to residency issues, registration failure, etc., it is possible that the Illinois electoral votes could count toward the Republican candidate (Sterling). Most of Chicago (and thereby, a significant portion of Illinois) would still strongly favor the Democratic candidate, and would lose their voices to the flawed system. A Republican leaning would be incorrectly attributed to Illinois overall, and in a close election (such as those of 2000 and 2004), this could dramatically affect the outcome of the race (Sterling).

There are many populations who are at risk of having their voices stifled through invalid voter registration (NCH). For instance, homeless individuals, with no permanent address, may face obstacles when attempting to register. If the registration is completed, they have no mailing address at which to receive their registration cards, and likely no identification with an accurate, current street address. A similar situation faces transient, displaced, and certain other severely marginalized individuals; therefore a lack of a stable, permanent home address makes it impossible for an individual to register to vote (NCH). In many cases, non-homeless, non-transient, and non-displaced individuals simply forget to register before the deadline (SBE). Consequently, they cannot vote, and they, combined with others unable to register for various reasons, will not be represented in the election. This situation could ultimately lead to a misrepresentation of state opinion, as well as present ample opportunity for voter fraud (PFAWF). Voter fraud is the direct, intentional misrepresentation of a voting population achieved through intimidation, refusal of, or attempts to discourage from voting certain voters or potential voters who may pose a threat to a specific political party or interest, or the act of physically interfering with or removing these ballots in an act called “ballot tampering” (Grimshaw). Another form of voter fraud is the submission of multiple votes, which is achieved by submitting inaccurate registration information in an invalid voting precinct, often in addition to valid registration in one’s own precinct (Harris). As previously mentioned, voter fraud is a Class 4 felony, punishable by one to three years in a state penitentiary and/or up to a $25,000 fine (Sanford).

In recent elections, Illinois voter registration policy, and others similar to it, have come into question because of the inherent bias in the system (PFAWF). Homeless and other marginalized individuals are often excluded from voter eligibility due to their lack of stable residence, or proof of identity/address (NCH). Similarly, homeless, transient, and other individuals facing registration difficulties are most often members of a racial minority group, commonly African-American (Grimshaw). The Illinois voter registration system does not simply make it difficult for those of low socioeconomic status to register, but also silences thousands of Illinois residents whose lives are affected by decisions made in the voting process (Grimshaw). This situation is reminiscent of the poll taxes and literacy exams of the post-Civil War era, in which anyone wishing to vote was subject to either a tax or a test proving literacy. Both of these restrictions were disadvantageous to African-Americans and of the time, as they had only recently been released from slavery, were poor, and had received limited or no education (Barton). Although less direct and more subtle than the poll taxes and literacy exams of the 1800s, the Illinois voter registration system creates a parallel atmosphere of frustration and restriction for those of lower socioeconomic status, and therefore, for many African-Americans and other racial minorities. By repressing these populations’ votes, the system creates a continual probability that the middle and upper-classes maintain control of Illinois politics (Grinshaw).

In striking contrast to the Illinois system, Wisconsin voter registration policy offers significantly more opportunity for interested citizens to register as voters (SEB). In order to register to vote in Wisconsin, one must meet the following conditions: 1) must be a U.S. citizen, 2) must be a resident of Wisconsin, and 3) must be at least eighteen years of age on or before election day (Haas). To prove citizenship of Wisconsin, voters are required to furnish a driver’s license or state I.D., or provide the last four digits of his/her social security number (SEB). The potential voter in Wisconsin has three options for completing the registration process. The first is registration by mail, which requires the resident to complete and mail the registration form to the county clerk’s office by 5:00 PM on the 13th day before the election (as compared to the 27th day in Illinois). For a first-time registration applicant, identification must be included with this application. Acceptable forms of identification include a driver’s license, state I.D., other photo I.D., or any piece of mail or government document indicating the voter’s name and current address (SEB). The second registration option is to register in person at the County Clerk’s office, which may be done up until 5:00 PM on the day before the election. After the “by mail” deadline, potential voters must present identification with the following characteristics: bears the voter’s name, including given and family name, and bears the voter’s residential address, including street number and municipality. Also required is a utility bill or other proof of living at the current address for at least ten days prior to the election, as opposed to the strict 30-day requirement in Illinois (SEB).

Clearly, Wisconsin voter registration policy offers more ample opportunity for voter turnout. Because of the fact that the only strict requirements for registration in Wisconsin are proof of age and proof of 10-day residency, there is a degree of flexibility allowing for a broad scope of populations to register (SEB). Transients, the homeless, or other persons in shelters can use a shelter address as a place of residence, because the time frame is so much shorter than in Illinois. An example of homeless persons being empowered to vote in Wisconsin is the Hope House of Milwaukee (NCH). This organization, a shelter for homeless families, developed an innovative program to utilize community resources in an effort to make voting more accessible to the shelter’s residents. Prior to the 2000 election, the Hope House staff gathered information and research about the candidates; in addition, they wrote a letter to each candidate requesting a brief reply explaining his stance on major issues relevant to residents (NCH). The candidates complied with this request, and shelter residents began forming informed opinions on the issues. Also, the staff arranged for the City Elections Committee to set up a voter registration site on the shelter premises, to counteract transportation problems (NCH). Before election day, the City Elections Committee traveled to Hope House and employed a mock voting session, to ease the residents’ anxieties and familiarize them with the voting process. The staff also created a document, to be completed by residents, declaring residency at the shelter. For families that had recently transitioned out of the shelter, the staff offered maps illustrating election districts and directed the ex-residents to their respective polling places (NCH).

Although Wisconsin voter registration policy offers more opportunity for residents to register and vote, it also arguably offers more opportunity for voter fraud. Challengers of the Wisconsin system maintain that such lenient registration guidelines offer more loopholes than states with stricter statutes (Bennett, 1990).For instance, critics argue, people can easily claim residency at any address for which they receive utility bills, and may inadvertently be allowed to vote in multiple precincts (Harris).While this assertion is theoretically sound, the voting system offers stringent control for such oversights (Haas).In 2003, Mark Grebner, Co-Owner of Wisconsin Voter Lists, gave a speech before the Senate Committee on Education, Ethics, and Elections. Grebner stated, “My firm, which does business here at Wisconsin Voter Lists, has built a complete and accurate voter database for Wisconsin. Our file includes names, addresses, dates-of-birth, phone numbers, political jurisdictions, and voter history from 1996 to the present for over 4 million eligible voters” (Grebner). Access to this database can readily identify multiple names, addresses, and duplicate or falsified Social Security numbers, as well as names of deceased or non-eligible individuals (Grebner). Despite any criticism of Wisconsin’s voter registration system, it is clear that the combination of ample security controls, coupled with its flexibility, make this policy more accommodating to a greater population than do many other states (Grebner).

Several organizations in the past have recognized and responded to Illinois’ current mandatory voter registration policy. For instance, the Rainbow Coalition and Operation PUSH have helped launch the Illinois Freedom Bus Tour (RPC). This “tour” is actually a chain of buses and other vehicles that traverse the entire state of Illinois each day for a month preceding an election, transporting unregistered voters to registration sites (RPC). The Rainbow Coalition, founded in 1971, and Operation PUSH merged to become the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition (RPC), overseen by Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. (RPC). On a smaller scale, certain colleges, universities, and other organizations offer transportation to and from registration and election sites (NAICU). Hope Haven, a DeKalb, IL emergency/transitional shelter similar to Milwaukee’s Hope House, offers rides to polling places, declaration of residency at the shelter, and informative political literature to shelter residents.* Interestingly, much of Illinois’ efforts in counteracting voter inequality have been focused on alleviating social repercussions of current policy, rather than reforming the policy itself. It is this author’s opinion that lobbying for policy reform is the next logical step toward empowering marginalized populations to vote, in order to effectively service the largest population possible.

The Illinois voter registration system became strict policy in 1995, with the implementation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) by President Clinton in 1993 (Jackson). The NVRA is commonly known as the “Motor Voter Law” (Cain) becauseit calls for unregistered or relocated voters to register/re-register when applying for or renewing their drivers’ licenses. The NVRA goes beyond the scope of registration opportunity at the DMV. It allows for non-partisan registration in numerous settings, some of which include libraries, schools, churches, military recruiting centers, and social service agencies (Jackson).Individual state law dictates how each state handles voter registration. Illinois’ rigorous requirements were initially met with strong resistance, namely by Governor Jim Edgar, whose opposition decelerated implementation of NVRA (Jackson). Edgar’s stance was faced with criticism of its own, cynically attributed by some to the “Chicago Democratic Machine” at work (Grimshaw).Some conservative Illinoisans denounced criticism of Edgar’s reluctance to accept NVRA, implying that NVRA was essentially a liberal ploy to slant the vote to the left, by empowering populations (minorities, the poor) who would likely be inclined to vote Democratic (Grimshaw). A stated goal of the NVRA is to register and empower disenfranchised people. Reverend Jackson states, “The poor, the less educated, the young, and people of color register and vote at a much lower percentage. The purpose of the law and its design was to register these most disenfranchised people” (Jackson, 1996, p. 30). Ironically, registration requirements appear to hinder those individuals they intend to aid, as several categories of “disenfranchised individuals” lack the required materials for voter registration.

History offers conflicting views on effective and ineffective approaches to voter registration policy. Since the beginning of formal elections there has been voter fraud, and there has been at least moderately discriminatory policy design (Barusch). Likewise, there will always be contradicting views on how to deal with these problems. However, upon analyzing current Illinois voter registration policy, the necessity of reform becomes clear. Eligible voters are being turned away at the polls because of loopholes and flaws in the system. This puts the state at risk for gross misrepresentation in the polls, which contradicts the inherent purpose of voting policy. By switching to a polling system more conducive to the needs of all populations within the state, Illinois would more accurately convey the opinions of its citizen. The recent 2004 election, with its publicly-decried surge of fraud and polling mishaps (Freeman), serves as a frank reminder to Americans that despite promises of democracy, a corrupt system can always manipulate its preferences into policy. However, it is the duty of the government to provide beneficial, accommodating policies to citizens, and Illinois voter registration policy has much room for improvement.

The acute awareness of voter fraud and other faults of Illinois voting policy is a relatively recent development (Grimshaw). Sketchy historical research is available on the correlation between registration policies and instances of fraud or other mishaps. Recent history serves to educate the public on what sorts of consequences follow unsatisfactory policy (Freeman). The 2000 and 2004 elections provide significant education regarding both Illinois and national voter registration policies and their consequences (PFAWF). The registration system itself, the foundation of modern American elections, also proves itself the backbone of voter fraud development (Harris). In states with strict registration regulations, such as Illinois, fraud evolves as a response to the relative ease with which restrictions can be imposed upon politically-undesirable populations (Hayduk). For instance, in a heavily Republican area, poll judges and other officials may be biased in favor of a Republican candidate. Thus, they may attempt to discourage or void the vote of a voter belonging to a Democratic-leaning demographic, perhaps nullifying the vote based on a technicality forgiven for voters appearing more Republican-friendly (Grimshaw).

Efforts to resolve the problem of voter discrepancy are certainly in accordance with research findings (Bennett, 1990). Young, first-time voters are being informed of their “duty” to register. Organizations broadcast their respective messages about voting and registration and civic duties for months preceding elections. In spite of these public urges to vote, many individuals of low socioeconomic status remain most discouraged from the polls, due to lack of resources and information (Hayduk). These oppressed populations comprise a significant component of society, and their votes alone would be sufficient to offset many previously-elected officials (U.S. Census Bureau). With higher numbers of impoverished, homeless, transient, invalid, or otherwise disenfranchised groups concentrated in large cities (such as Chicago), it is outrageous for such populations to be virtually ignored in elections in which officials often speak to topics and policies relevant to the oppressed. The people who most rely on officials for social survival are constantly edged out of important electoral processes, simply because they lack something as considerable as a home address or proof of long-term residence.

Through examination of the aforementioned Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, similar smaller-scale groups, and policy reform issues, it is evident that oppressed populations are moving into central focus as being underserved in the political arena (PFAWF). Significantly more attention must be directed toward reforming laws and enabling such populations to register and vote, lest the system defeat its own purpose.

A major goal of the Illinois voter registration system is to allow every eligible citizen the opportunity to vote in a fair election through a non-biased, non-partisan polling process (Jackson). This manifest purpose is eloquently described by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.:

“[The law] allows non-partisan voter registration to take place in a wide variety of ways and settings…Who you vote for, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, is your own private business. That we as a society go out of our way to make sure that all eligible people are registered to vote should be the business of the public and public officials who are charged with the responsibility of implementing the law.” Jackson continues, criticizing Illinois officials: “In this instance, those officials are failing in their public trust” (Jackson, 1996, p. 30).

An underlying, unspoken goal of democracy permeates the topic of voting policy in Illinois. There is a general consensus of residents regarding the goals of policy. People want their votes to count; otherwise, they would fail to register, appear at the polls, or profess concern over disparity in policy. However, simply adopting agreement regarding goals is a far cry from approving a given policy. An implicit assumption of the Illinois voter registration system is that it will yield fair, non-partisan assurance that each vote will count toward accurate state representation (SBE). This hypothesis fails to account for human nature. Good intentions of policy makers cannot undo the corruption of others. On the contrary, inherent defects in the system “accidentally” invalidate the votes of thousands of disenfranchised populations in each election (PFAWF). Good intentions aside, it is impossible for policy hypotheses to control for human greed.

Theoretically, Illinois voter registration policy successfully accomplishes its goals of providing a fair, non-partisan registration and vote to registered voters. For those who remember to register, and those who are fortunate enough to meet the strict registration criteria, this process appears accommodating and seamless. But for those populations lacking homes, identification, transportation, physical capacity, or other resources, the Illinois registration system has failed. By modifying this policy to include accommodations and allowances for disadvantaged populations, the Illinois state government could offer its residents an opportunity to achieve the satisfaction of having their voices heard, their citizenship acknowledged, and their votes counted.


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* This author spent one year as a case manager at Hope Haven, and assisted with providing election information to residents. Information in this paper referencing Hope Haven is drawn from this author’s direct experience in the shelter.

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