Illinois Senate approves automatic voter registration bill

Senate Democrats pushed through legislation Thursday that would automatically register drivers to vote when they get their licenses, a change supporters argued would eliminate red tape and get more people to the polls.

Republicans were fiercely opposed, saying eligibility should be tightened by requiring voters to show photo identification before they could register. Doing so, they contended, would prevent voter fraud and keep illegal immigrants from voting — arguments Democrats said were solutions in search of a problem.

"The notion that voter fraud is rampant in Illinois is just unproven and undocumented," said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, who has pushed bills supporting online and same-day voter registration and pointed out that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke in favor of the concept just hours earlier.

During an appearance in Springfield, the governor stopped short of saying he'd back the bill, but said he was a "big fan of simplifying the voter registration process."

"It's a big part of making democracy work. I'm very supportive of everybody who should be voting, get them registered and get them voting," Rauner said.

But GOP lawmakers said those who want a say in elections should be willing to take any steps necessary to participate.

"At some point citizens of this country need to say, 'I want to be involved in the process so much that I'm going to make the effort to stand up and verify who I am,' and say, 'I want to be part of this process,'" said Sen. Kyle MCarter, R-Lebanon.

Sponsoring Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said the bill would put in place plenty of safeguards to weed out anyone not qualified to vote because the information provided to get a driver's license would then be screened by both the State Board of Elections and local county clerks. Additionally, once voters are registered, information would be mailed to their homes telling them to opt out if they don't meet the criteria.

Other Democrats took offense to the word choices used to describe undocumented immigrants who could inadvertently be registered, including the term "illegal American citizens."

"That is an oxymoron," said Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago. "I find your words disrespectful, racist and unacceptable in this great body of the Illinois State."

The measure passed 42-16, with four Republicans breaking ranks to vote in support. They were Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, Sen. Sue Rezin of Morris, Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington and Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview, who beat a Rauner-backed challenger in the March primary.