Illinois sets spirited example for Indiana

Illinois has absorbed plenty of criticism and wisecracks for years of dysfunctional handling of the state budget and finances. Illinois deserves those critiques.

Yet last week, the Land of Lincoln’s Republican governor and Democratic-majority Legislature pulled off an achievement other state governments, especially Indiana’s, have failed or resisted to implement. Illinois adopted automatic voter registration. Both chambers of the Legislature unanimously approved it. Governor Bruce Rauner signed the bill, bucking his Republican Party’s recent penchant of imposing obstacles to voting as a political tactic.

Rauner vetoed a similar bill last year, citing concerns that its safeguards against voter fraud were inadequate. This time, Rauner saw it differently. His words supporting its adoption should be heard by his fellow Republican state officials in Indiana and elsewhere.

“This is good bipartisan legislation, and it addresses the fundamental fact that the right to vote is foundational for the rights of Americans in our democracy,” Rauner said upon signing the act on Aug. 28. “We as a people need to do everything we can to knock down barriers, remove hurdles for all who are eligible to vote, to be able to vote.”

Illinois’ new law modernizes the state’s voting system, simplifies and secures it, reduces costs and paperwork. The law also is expected to increase voter participation. Residents become automatically registered when they conduct transactions with state agencies such as the license branches, unless they opt out.

Across the state line, Indiana state Rep. Clyde Kersey, a Terre Haute Democrat, attempted a similar bill during the last General Assembly session. Kersey’s automatic voter registration bill got watered down by the Republican leadership of the House Elections Committee. The diluted version compels Bureau of Motor Vehicles employees to ask residents seeking licenses or other services if they want to be registered. The weak version of Kersey’s bill passed and was signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb. Kersey called it a “baby step.”

The watering down of the law reflects more than a decade of voter suppression by Indiana, starting with the 2005 photo-ID law enacted to combat a virtually nonexistent “problem” of voter impersonation fraud. Those tactics come from an outdated political playbook that presumes that large voter turnouts favor one party, Democrats, over the other. Yet, newly adopted automatic voter registration law in Oregon and Georgia did not lead to broad Democratic wins in the 2016 election, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

Kersey should file another automatic registration bill in the 2018 session and emphasize Rauner’s approval of neighboring Illinois’ law. And, this time, Indiana’s ruling party should drop its reflex position of complicating the voting process, which drives away residents with limited means and mobility. Instead, the Legislature should follow the lead of Illinois and nine other states and adopt automatic registration, if they believe Rauner’s words that laws should allow “all who are eligible to vote to be able to vote.”

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