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Measure impacting auto voter registration raises non-citizen registration concerns

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(The Center Square) – An Illinois Senate bill aims to streamline the automatic voter registration process to include applicants for both standard driver licenses, which non-citizens can now obtain, and REAL IDs for those who provide documentation of U.S. citizenship.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, amended Senate Bill 496 and said that applicants who present immigration documents will not be registered to vote.

“Programming is in place to prevent the [automatic] voter registration process from launching,” said Villivalam during a committee hearing late Wednesday.

Illinois already has an automatic voter registration in place but Villivalam’s bill would expand it to include REAL IDs.

In 2017, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law the automatic voter registration program, which means Illinoisans who apply for a driver’s license are automatically registered to vote. The Rauner enacted law excluded temporary visitor driver’s licenses, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2023 signed legislation that allows non-citizens to apply and obtain a standard driver’s license. Illinois has had the TVDL program for a decade that allowed non-citizens that meet certain criteria to obtain a license that noted “NOT VALID FOR IDENTIFICATION” across the top. The 2023 law changed that to have all non-REAL ID licenses and state IDs say “FEDERAL LIMITS APPLY.”

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, asked if Villivalam’s legislation clearly states that applicants have to be in-person.

“Can you point to somewhere in the bill where it would say you have to be present in order to present all the documentation in order to be enrolled in the AVR program?” Rezin asked.

“So each individual has to sign an attestation that allows the applicant to affirm under penalty of perjury the truth and correctness of the information in the application and when they’re doing that they have to be in-person,” said Brenda Glenn, an attorney with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.

Senate Minority Leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove, expressed concerns surrounding the constitutionality of the bill.

“People exercise their right to vote but people have the right to not vote and to not register to vote. I find it hard to see how a reviewing court is going to find this legislation constitutional when you essentially take a very simple process where you can opt-out to vote and instead you put someone through a more burdensome process on the backend to not register to vote,” Curran said during committee. “You’re raising the threshold to exercise their right to not vote or register to vote.”

Glenn confirmed Illinois will be at least one of 10 states to allow a backend opt out voter registration process.

Advocates say with a backend AVR process instead of a front-end process, individuals are automatically registered to vote unless they put in extra effort required like having to fill out and return a mailer indicating a desire not to be registered, and the extra effort makes it less likely that a voting-eligible person will opt out.

Federal criminal law prohibits non-citizens from registering and voting in U.S. elections.

Villivalam said he introduced this because non-English speaking immigrants are put in situations when interacting with the government where it becomes truncated.

“The tendency is to really pull back and not really answer those questions where you understand them,” he said. “For that reason I am passionate about this bill because instead of having a hectic encounter and getting a question to opt-in, many people will be able to have the opportunity to be automatically registered and then on the backend, if they would not want to be, then there’s a process for that,” said Villivalam.

Villivalam’s bill advanced out of committee and could come up for a full Senate vote Thursday.

Carol Davis, Illinois Conservative Union chairman, said it’s not only DMVs but President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14019, issued in early 2021, that ordered every federal agency to register everyone who comes into contact with the agency.

“People who don’t speak English often do not understand that they have to ‘opt-out.’ They are not informed that it is against federal law for non-citizens to register to vote and/or to vote,” said Davis. “Everytime someone touches a federal agency in any way they are getting a voter registration form shoved in their face.”

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that states may not require documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote in a federal election, citing the requirement in the National Voter Registration Act that states must accept the federal registration form, which features only the check box asking individuals if they are a citizen or not.

“While there’s a lot of bad people pouring over the border, there’s a lot of great people who would make great American citizens eventually. They will use these people and get them to register, half the time they don’t realize they’re being registered, and they aren’t telling them it’s a felony. And when they do apply for citizenship and it’s revealed they are registered and/or they voted … they are denied citizenship because of that,” said Davis. “They’re being used. They’re victims.”

Separately, Senate Bill 2978 says the Illinois Secretary of State will not provide documents submitted with a driver’s license application to any government entity for the purpose of enforcing federal immigration laws, including the Illinois State Board of Elections. SB2978 was put on postponed consideration in the House Wednesday after spirited debate, but may still be brought up.

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