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Fortner's claim about states with automatic voter registration checks out
Sponsors of a new bill to make voter registration automatic with issuance of Illinois driver’s licenses say it fulfills federal standards for proving voter eligibility and protects against fraud.
Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the state's first attempt at automatic voter registration (AVR) over questions about fraud and federal compliance.
But the chief co-sponsor of the new legislation, state Rep. Mike Fortner, R-West Chicago, wrote in an op-ed that his bill "requires the applicant to attest to their eligibility to vote, as is required by the National Voter Registration Act and used by all other states that have (automatic voter registration)."
With automatic voter registration gaining momentum in recent years, we decided to look into Fortner’s claim to see whether states that have authorized AVR do in fact require applicants to attest to their eligibility to vote.
Automatic voter registration in the U.S.
Illinois’ attempt to institute automatic voter registration failed after Rauner vetoed Senate Bill 250 over concerns it could violate federal election law and open the door to voter fraud.
Rauner said he supports modernizing the state’s election system and easing voter access, and noted in his veto message that with a few changes, he could get behind a future version of the bill.
That new version was introduced Nov. 15 by House Republican leader Jim Durkin in the form of House Bill 6627. Later that month, Fortner penned an op-ed explaining how the GOP-backed legislation addresses the issues raised by the governor.
Six states -- Alaska, California, Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia -- and the District of Columbia have enacted AVR as of Dec. 8, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In March 2015, Oregon became the first state in the nation to pass a law that allows for the automatic registration of eligible residents applying for or renewing a driver’s license, except those who opt out.
Most recently, voters in Alaska approved a November ballot measure to allow AVR through the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), which pays a sum to eligible residents who have lived in Alaska for a full calendar year. Once the system is in place, eligible voters, unless they decline, either would be registered automatically or have their existing voter information updated when they complete their annual PFD applications.
A total of 29 states considered measures in 2016 to automatically register residents who conduct business with state government agencies and transmit voter information electronically to election officials, according to the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.
In addition to Illinois, New Jersey was the only other state whose legislature passed an automatic voter registration bill that ended up being vetoed by the governor.
Requirements of automatic voter registration
Fortner writes in his op-ed that unlike SB 250, the legislation he’s sponsoring requires an applicant to attest to their eligibility to vote, which he says is required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also referred to as the "Motor Voter Act."
The language in Fortner’s bill states that a driver’ license/voter registration application must, "unless the applicant declines to register to vote or change his or her registered residence address, require the applicant to attest, by signature under penalty of perjury, to meeting the qualifications to register to vote in Illinois at his or her residence address as indicated on his or her driver's license or identification card application."
Federal law mandates states include a voter registration form as part of any application for obtaining or renewing a driver’s license. These applications only can require the minimum amount of information necessary to allow state officials to determine the eligibility of an applicant.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a "voter registration application must state each voter eligibility requirement (including citizenship), contain an attestation that the applicant meets each requirement, state the penalties provided by law for submission of a false voter registration application and require the signature of the applicant under penalty of perjury."
Under SB 250, the Secretary of State’s Driver Services Department would have been permitted to send all information pertaining to an applicant’s identity, address and citizenship to the Illinois State Board of Elections, "regardless of whether or not the individual attested to his or her eligibility to register to vote."
That language was one of the sticking points for Republicans who opposed the bill, and was underscored in the governor’s veto message.
"Senate Bill 250 does not require an applicant to attest to meeting the qualifications to vote or to sign the application, as required by federal law," Rauner wrote in his veto message. "The bill relies on the State Board of Elections to screen out individuals who are not eligible to vote, even though the State Board may not have access to that information."
Do all states with AVR require applicants to attest to their eligibility to vote?
The second part of Fortner’s statement claims all states with automatic voter registration require applicants to attest to their eligibility to vote.
In a phone interview, Fortner said his staff had verified that each state with automatic registration requires applicants to attest to their eligibility to vote.
Jonathan Brater, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, referred to the attestation requirement as an "in-the-weeds legal issue."
Brater said it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison among states with automatic registration because eligibility requirements are collected differently in each state.
He added that the attestation requirement outlined in the motor voter law is from a time when computers weren’t used for voter registration, and that the "specific wording of the law doesn’t really reflect how states do it" today. At least 33 states use electronic registration at DMVs and about 39 currently or soon will offer online voter registration. Both are available in Illinois.
"The real problem with the National Voter Registration Act so far is that not enough people are getting to register to vote," Brater said. "Automatic voter registration fulfills the promise of the law that other attempts to implement have not."
While states with automatic voter registration do collect eligibility information differently, an analysis of legislation passed by state legislatures shows applicants must attest that they meet the qualifications to vote and/or sign the application form.
Here’s a look at AVR requirements in those states:
In a November op-ed about a Republican-backed automatic voter registration bill, Fortner wrote, "House Bill 6627 also requires the applicant to attest to their eligibility to vote, as is required by the National Voter Registration Act and used by all other states that have AVR."
Fortner argued the House Republican’s automatic voter registration legislation addresses the concerns raised by Rauner when he vetoed SB 250 on Aug. 12. The bill would have permitted the Secretary of State to electronically send information pertaining to an applicant’s identity, address and citizenship to the State Board of Elections, "regardless of whether or not the individual attested to his or her eligibility to register to vote," according to the language of the bill.
The West Chicago Republican’s claim that the National Voter Registration Act requires applicants to attest to their eligibility to vote, as do all the states that have automatic voter registration is accurate.
An analysis of the legislation passed by the six states and Washington, D.C., that have enacted AVR shows all of them require applicants to attest to their eligibility to vote with a signature, and none had language similar to that of Illinois’ bill.
We rate Fortner’s claim True.
State Journal-Register, "Mike Fortner: Let’s get automatic voter registration done right in Illinois," Nov. 25, 2016 (accessed Jan. 5, 2016).
Phone interview, Jonathan Brater, counsel for Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, Jan. 11, 2016
National Conference of State Legislatures, Automatic Voter Registration, Dec. 8, 2016 (accessed Jan. 10, 2016)
Brennan Center for Justice, "Automatic Voter Registration," Nov. 9. 2016 (accessed Jan. 10, 2016)
Brennan Center for Justice, "Automatic Voter Registration and Modernization in the States," July 12, 2016 (accessed Jan. 10, 2016)
WBEZ, "What You Need To Know About Illinois’ Attempt At Automatic Voter Registration," Aug. 15, 2016 (accessed Jan. 5, 2016).
Illinois General Assembly, Full text of Senate Bill 250, accessed Jan. 5, 2016
Illinois General Assembly, Full text of House Bill 6627, accessed Jan. 5, 2016
Phone interview, Abe Scarr, Illinois Public Interest Research Group, Jan. 13, 2016
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