As Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza prepared for the Nov. 8 election, her office spent thousands and thousands of dollars to buy software and other materials in order to register voters at their polling places on Election Day.
However, a federal court ruling may have made that effort all for not.
Voters in highly populated areas of Illinois will have fewer Election Day registration options after a federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the wider same-day registration instituted in 2015 that Republicans claim is unconstitutional.
Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan’s move blocks same-day registration at polling places in mostly urban areas like Chicago for the Nov. 8 election. The court must still take up the wider question about poll-level registration.
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“This comes as a huge surprise to me and I’m sure my peers in counties with more than 100,000 people,” Mendoza said.
If people register to vote on Election Day, they will only be able to do so at the County Clerk’s office, rather than at their polling place.
“If (people) have every desire to vote in the election, they need to (register) before Nov. 8, or they have to come to me,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said voter guides have already been printed that say people will be able to register at polling places on Election Day. So she’ll have to rely on media outlets to get the word out about the change, she said.
The law required counties, including Madison and St. Clair counties, with more than 100,000 people to allow people to register to vote at their polling places the day of the election.
State lawmakers broadened same-day registration last year after the 2014 pilot program led to long lines, particularly in Chicago.
Republicans filed a lawsuit in August, arguing that the registration is an unfair and unequal system because voters in less populated and GOP-leaning areas don’t have equal access.
“While it is a desirable goal to make the voting process more readily available to United States citizens in Illinois and to encourage them to vote, that goal must apply equally to all United States citizens in Illinois,” Der-Yeghiayan wrote in the decision.
Today the court recognized the unfairness of guaranteeing a voting right to some voters but not others. The court ruled that if Illinois is going to have Election Day voter registration at polling places, it should be available statewide — and it should be fair. The government shouldn’t make it harder for people in some parts of the state to register and vote.
Jacob Huebert, senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center
State Board of Elections general counsel Ken Menzel said the ruling will cause confusion, particularly because voters were able to register on the day of the primary this year. He said an appeal is likely.
Jacob Huebert, a senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center who represented the Republicans in the case, said the judge’s ruling “restores a level playing field” for the election.
“Today the court recognized the unfairness of guaranteeing a voting right to some voters but not others,” Huebert said. “The court ruled that if Illinois is going to have Election Day voter registration at polling places, it should be available statewide — and it should be fair. The government shouldn’t make it harder for people in some parts of the state to register and vote.”
For election judges who will work at the voting precincts, not needing to register voters and determine their correct ballot is one less thing they will have to handle.
Mendoza and her St. Clair County counterpart, Tom Holbrook, say they are going forward in case the decision gets reversed.
“We are gearing up to handle polling location registration,” Mendoza said.
Holbrook said St. Clair County has added extra phone lines in order to accommodate same day registration at polling places. People would fill out forms at the polling places and judges would call into the clerk’s office.
St. Clair County also is planning to have employees from other departments help out in the clerk’s office on election day, when the courthouse is closed, Holbrook said.
When people tried to register to vote on the primary election day, it overloaded phone lines, Holbrook said.
Holbrook said judges have been trained, but if they don’t end up needing to register voters the day of election, they will be told to tell non-registered voters to go to the county clerk’s office.
“We’ll move ahead and be ready for this, just in case the courts reverse (the decision),” Holbrook said. “We’ll have to be ready for it.”
Voter registration is available at county clerks offices in the metro-east up to and including Election Day. For more information, visit the St. Clair County Clerk’s website or the Madison County Clerk’s site.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.