Automatic voter registration has boosted Illinois’ statewide voter roll

There have been multiple challenges to automatic voter registration implementation in Illinois and there are still opportunities to significantly improve AVR implementation. Even with those challenges, we wanted to measure the law’s effectiveness at Secretary of State facilities since implementation began in the summer of 2018. Our analysis shows that voter registration applications at Secretary of State facilities have increased markedly, by 37 percent, which translates to an additional 111,000 voter applications every year. 

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Keegan Hollyer
Democracy and Civic Engagement Associate, Illinois PIRG

Author: Keegan Hollyer

Democracy and Civic Engagement Associate, Illinois PIRG

Started on staff: 2021
B.A., summa cum laude, University of Michigan

Keegan organizes with coalition partners in pursuit of reforms to the democratic process in Illinois. Keegan lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, and has plans to move to Chicago when the time is right. He loves to bake, cook and practice his viola when he can.

 2017, then-Governor Rauner signed Public Act 100-0464, automatic voter registration, or AVR, into law[1]. The law, which won unanimous bipartisan support from the Illinois General Assembly, sought to modernize the state’s voter registration system and further integrate it with other business carried out at the Office of the Secretary of State and other state agencies.[2]

There have been multiple challenges to AVR implementation in Illinois and there are still opportunities to significantly improve AVR implementation. Even with those challenges, we wanted to measure the law’s effectiveness at Secretary of State facilities since implementation began in the summer of 2018.

Our analysis shows that voter registration applications at Secretary of State facilities have increased markedly, by 37 percent, which translates to an additional 111,000 voter applications every year. 

Context—AVR in Illinois

Illinois PIRG, along with the Just Democracy Illinois coalition, was a leader in the effort to enshrine AVR in law. The campaign lasted two years and ultimately won unanimous bipartisan support for the reform—a remarkable feat given the partisan tensions of the time and which typically surround elections bills.[3] 

AVR is designed to streamline the voter registration process for citizens when they interact with state offices. Along with other policies, AVR is a critical tool for achieving universal registration, wherein all eligible, and only eligible, voters are registered to vote, registration problems can be fixed such that they do not prevent eligible citizens from voting, and responsibility for maintaining and updating a complete and accurate voter list falls on the state, rather than on individual voters.[4]

Voter registration at state agencies is nothing new. Across the country, state agencies offer voter registration opportunities because of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993[5], often referred to as “Motor Voter.” Automatic registration builds on the NVRA and introduces two simple but key reforms:

  • Opt-out registration: eligible voters interacting with the state would automatically be registered or have their registrations updated unless they affirmatively decline the opportunity. 
  • Electronic registration: digital registration forms are transferred from the state agency to the appropriate election authority.[6] 

20 states and Washington D.C. have adopted AVR.[7]

Unfortunately, there have been implementation problems in Illinois, particularly at the Office of the Secretary of State — so much so that litigation pursued by us and members of our coalition only recently ended in a settlement.[8] While our coalition had many implementation concerns, one of the largest had to do with the fundamental design of opt-out registration.

Making a voter registration application opt-out means making it the path of least resistance. That is, an eligible voter should not need to take any additional steps to complete their voter registration application. Conversely, under AVR, an eligible voter should need to take an extra step to opt-out of registering. This is one of the key AVR design principles that should increase new and updated voter registration applications. 

In practice, following this design principle means that an eligible voter should only need to provide one signature to complete both their voter registration and underlying agency application. For opt-out registrations, the Secretary of State office’s implementation originally required three signatures.[9] As part of our lawsuit settlement, the process now requires two signatures.[10] We want to see it down to one signature.

Other problems with implementation included the Secretary of State processing applications from ineligible voters — both by age and citizenship status[11] — and rolling out opt-out registration a full year behind schedule.[12] While not the focus of this analysis, there have been challenges with implementation at other state agencies as well.[13] 

Despite these challenges, our analysis shows the positive impact of the law and indicates that even more is possible with more robust implementation.

Findings

Overall Applications

Voter registration applications processed by the Office of the Secretary of State increased significantly with the implementation of AVR.

We compared the number of voter registration applications originating at Secretary of State offices in the three and a half years since AVR began (July 1, 2018 through Dec 31, 2021) to a historical baseline, the roughly three and a half year period before implementation (from the end of the registration period for the 2014 midterm election through June 30, 2018).[14]

In the baseline period, more than 1.1 million new and updated registration applications are estimated to have originated from Secretary of State branches—a pace of about 303,000 registrations per year. 

In the post-AVR implementation period, more than 1.4 million registration applications came from Secretary of State offices—an annualized pace of just over 413,000. 

On an annualized basis, this constitutes a 37% jump in applications—roughly 111,000 additional applications per year. [15]

The 1.4 million applications from Secretary of State branches resulted in 1.3 million registrations.[16] 

 

Registration Updates

Most AVR applications were updating existing registrations.

About 59% of AVR applications at Secretary of State offices have been registration updates, which demonstrates a major benefit of AVR: making our voter lists more up to date and accurate by updating existing registrations.  This saves local election officials time and money and decreases challenges to voting caused by an out of date registration. 

New Registrations

The percentage of eligible voters in Illinois who are registered to vote has increased since the implementation of AVR, and has outpaced other states in the Midwest.

Another major goal of AVR is to register more eligible voters, boosting overall registration and voter participation. Between the presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, more than 1 million new people registered to vote in Illinois—almost double the figure from the previous presidential election cycle.[17] About a third, just more than 330,000, of new registrations took place at Secretary of State offices through the AVR system following its rollout on July 1 of 2018. [18]

The citizen voting age population, or CVAP, is an estimate released by the Census Bureau of the number of people eligible to be registered to vote in any given jurisdiction. This figure allows for the calculation of a measure of a state’s voter registration system: the percentage of the eligible population that is registered. By this metric, Illinois saw solid growth following the implementation of AVR, from 89% to 100% between 2018 and 2020. Of course, this does not mean that 100% of the state’s eligible voters are registered to vote—CVAP is an estimate, and some number of out-of-date registrations remain on the books at any given time. Nonetheless, CVAP, over time and across states, provides additional insight into the efficacy of voter registration systems.[19] 

In the 2018-2020 period, 8 states in the region experienced an average growth in the registered CVAP ratio of 4.5 percentage points. Illinois more than doubled that registration growth, with almost 11 percentage points of growth, making it the region’s most impressive increase and resulting in the highest registered CVAP ratio.[20] Of note, the second best performer in that time was Michigan—which implemented AVR in 2019.[21] 

Making a direct comparison between 2016 and 2020 is complicated because 2020 was a high-turnout election year – the period between 2016 and 2020 saw a large jump in voter registrations relative to past election cycles. To put the growth of registered voters between 2016 and 2020 into perspective, the total number of eligible Illinois voters grew by less than one percent, while the number of registrations grew by 13 percent.[22] Certainly, public interest in the 2020 election is a major reason for this surge, but AVR reforms helped facilitate this major increase in registrations.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Previous research suggests that automatic voter registration has increased registration rates in other states where it has been implemented.[23] This analysis adds to the evidence that AVR, even when not implemented as well as it could be, is effective. 

We found that AVR has been effective both in terms of updating existing registrations and in registering new voters. Improving the opt-out registration process could improve these results, especially for new registrations. 

To better fulfill the promise of AVR, we recommend the following:

  • The AVR process should be modernized and streamlined such that only one signature is necessary for opt-out registrations. We believe improving the opt-out process is important for people who otherwise would not register
  • The Office of the Secretary of State should more fully incorporate user testing and public consultation into the AVR implementation process, especially as it relates to non-English speaking registrants
  • The Office of the Secretary of State should foster an internal culture that is favorable to voter registration and sees it as a core service, rather than an add-on to its core services. Specifically, the Secretary of State should train and develop staff dedicated to improving voter registration issues and processes
  • Other state agencies covered by the AVR law should take steps to more seamlessly integrate the voter registration process into their services — rather than simply providing a link to the state’s voter registration website

Methodology

In order to measure the impact of Public Act 100-0464 we estimated the total number of new and updated voter registration applications collected at Illinois Secretary of State Drivers’ Services offices before and after the Act’s implementation.

The 2017 law requires that the Illinois State Board of Elections track the number of registration applications carried out under the law at participating state agencies.[24] That data serves as the basis of this report. The State Board did not collect comparable data before the implementation of the law in part because those registrations were paper records that were mailed directly to the appropriate local election authorities. Under AVR, those applications are electronic and utilize the state’s online voter registration infrastructure, which is managed by the State Board of Elections.[25]

For pre-AVR data, we drew from the federal U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), which publishes survey results of local election administrators following each federal election. Overall registration numbers and registrations at Secretary of State offices that took place prior to the implementation of AVR in 2018 are derived from EAVS and they are organized in 2-year blocks: the 2-year period between the close of voter registration for one federal election and the close of registration for the next federal election. Some analysis of EAVS data takes place in these 2-year blocks and as such does not align precisely with calendar years.

There are therefore two important differences in the data:

  • EAVS data is built on survey reporting from over 100 local election authorities of varying sizes and capacities tracking paper applications. The State Board of Elections data is collected by a single agency with an electronic record of every application.
  • The EAVS data is presented in two year increments, from the close of registration before one election to the next, while the SBOE data is annual and by calendar year.

The divergent timelines of EAVS data collection and the implementation of AVR created one final data challenge. Opt-in AVR began July 2018, overlapping with the end of the 2016-2018 EAVS reporting period. 

Due to the mismatch between the timing of EAVS data, the implementation of the law, and the period of interest, we estimated the number of registrations that took place at Secretary of State offices in 2017 and until July 2018. We did so by subtracting the number of AVR applications that the State Board of Elections reports took place July 1 - December 31, 2018 from the 2016-2018 EAVS data. The resulting sum served as our estimate for the period and the basis of annualized registration analysis. 

To analyze the impact of AVR on registrations at Secretary of State offices, this report focuses on the post-election period of 2014 through the end of June 2018 and the period between July 2018-2021, after the implementation of the law. To be able to make a reasonable comparison between the two, the annualized pace of registrations was calculated with partial years taken into account.

1.  An Act Concerning Elections, Public Act 100-0464, Illinois Compiled Statutes,  https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/publicacts/100/PDF/100-0464.pdf.
2.   CHANGE Illinois, “Automatic Voter Registration,” https://www.changeil.org/policy-priorities/automatic-voter-registration/.
3.  Illinois PIRG Education Fund, “Day 1 of Automatic Voter Registration in Illinois,” July 2, 2018, https://illinoispirgedfund.org/blogs/blog/ilf/day-1-automatic-voter-regi....
4.  CHANGE Illinois, “Automatic Voter Registration,”  https://www.changeil.org/policy-priorities/automatic-voter-registration/.
5.  The United States Department of Justice, “The National Voter Registration Act of 1993,” last modified March 11, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/crt/national-voter-registration-act-1993-nvra.
6.  Brennan Center for Justice, “Automatic Voter Registration, a Summary,” last modified June 30, 2021, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/automatic-voter-....
7.  Ibid
8.  Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, “Voting Rights Advocates Settle Claims with Secretary of State to Address Voter Registration Issues With Driver Services,” June 28, 2021, https://www.clccrul.org/media-press-1/2021/6/28/voting-rights-advocates-...
9.  Just Democracy Illinois, “Compliance with Illinois’ Automatic Voter Registration Statute, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Voting Rights Act,” pg. 4 of 2018 Notice Letter, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5871061e6b8f5b2a8ede8ff5/t/5e3062....
10.  The settlement agreement is not yet approved for distribution, but the SOS has made this commitment.
11.  Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, “Voting Rights Advocates Settle Claims with Secretary of State to Address Voter Registration Issues With Driver Services,” June 28, 2021, https://www.clccrul.org/media-press-1/2021/6/28/voting-rights-advocates-...
12.  Dustin Schultz, 2021 Illinois State Board of Elections Annual AVR report, December 3, 2021, pg. 3 https://www.ilga.gov/reports/ReportsSubmitted/3033RSGAEmail5798RSGAAttac....
13.  Just Democracy, “Just Democracy IL Files Lawsuit Against State Agencies for Bungling AVR Implementation,” February 28, 2020, https://mailchi.mp/clccrul/just-democracy-files-lawsuit-avr.
14.  See below for a  more detailed description of our methodology and data sources.
15.  Pre-2018 SOS registration data: U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “Illinois-EAVS 2016 Data Brief,” https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/eac_assets/1/6/Illinois_-_EAVS_2....
16.  Up-to-date AVR registration numbers were provided to Illinois PIRG by Angela Davis and Dustin Schultz of the Illinois State Board of Elections
17.  Total Active registration data: U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “The 2014 EAC Election Administration and Voting Survey Comprehensive Report,” June 30, 2015, pg. 47, https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/eac_assets/1/1/2014_EAC_EAVS_Com....
18.  “Election Administration and Voting Survey 2020 Comprehensive Report,” August, 2021, pg. 139-142, https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/document_library/files/2020_EAVS....
19.  Ibid
20.  Ibid, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin.
21.  National Conference of State Legislatures, “Automatic Voter Registration,” January 12, 2022, https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/automatic-voter-re....
22.  “Election Administration and Voting Survey 2020 Comprehensive Report,” August, 2021, pg. 139, https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/document_library/files/2020_EAVS....
23.  Brennan Center for Justice, Derek Rosenfeld, “Automatic Voter Registration Works Everywhere It’s Been Implemented,” April 11, 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/automatic-voter-....
24.  Dustin Schultz, 2018 Illinois State Board of Elections Annual AVR report, November 29, 2018, https://ilga.gov/reports/ReportsSubmitted/142RSGAEmail288RSGAAttach2018%....
25.  An Act Concerning Elections, Public Act 100-0464, (10 ILCS 5/1A-16.6),  https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/publicacts/100/PDF/100-0464.pdf. 

Keegan Hollyer
Democracy and Civic Engagement Associate, Illinois PIRG

Author: Keegan Hollyer

Democracy and Civic Engagement Associate, Illinois PIRG

Started on staff: 2021
B.A., summa cum laude, University of Michigan

Keegan organizes with coalition partners in pursuit of reforms to the democratic process in Illinois. Keegan lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, and has plans to move to Chicago when the time is right. He loves to bake, cook and practice his viola when he can.