A sweeping new election law that was intended to increase voter turnout in time for the presidential contest and a critical U.S. Senate race may instead cause greater frustration among voters due to Illinois lawmakers' inability to agree on a budget, with officials warning of possible long lines, fewer safeguards against voter fraud and other costly headaches come November.
The bill, pushed through the Legislature in the final weeks of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's term, required several changes that traditionally benefit Democrats, such as same-day voter registration and expanded early voting.
While those pieces of the law will be in place come Nov. 8, some local election officials say they've stuck with the bill for additional equipment and staffing. And the nearly $4 million that state election officials said they'd need in the first two years for other changes wasn't approved by the Legislature. The standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and majority Democrats over the state budget — now approaching its 10th month — has only made matters worse by delaying an overhaul of the state's voter registration system and data updates that are critical to cleaning up the list of eligible voters.
"This will have consequences on all the election officials in the state, all the county clerks," said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who advocated for the law. "But the worst part is it has negative consequences on the voters."
Without the needed funding, state election officials will likely miss critical deadlines, including one to alert more than 2 million people who are eligible to vote but are not registered how they can do so. Three contractors tasked with updating Illinois' voter registration database haven't been paid since July 1. They've continued to come to work, but "that could change at any moment," said Kevin Turner, director of information technology for the Illinois State Board of Elections.
The state also needs money to fully participate in a national information exchange aimed at identifying people who should no longer be on the state's voter rolls (registered in other states or died outside of Illinois) and to notify local election officials of people who have moved.
All of that could cause unnecessary delays at the polls while election judges register new voters or update registrations — a process that takes 10 to 15 minutes per person.
It also will make the job of cleaning up voter rolls far more difficult. That particularly angers Republicans, who questioned whether the move by Illinois Democrats was politically motivated, given that the U.S. Senate race between Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth could help decide which party controls the chamber.
"That's the most important part of the whole thing," Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham said.
Voters in some McLean County precincts got a glimpse of the potential problems when a record number of Illinois State University students showed up to register and vote in the primary, with lines that took hours to clear, McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael said.
The new law requires public universities to offer early and Election Day voting at student unions. But the bulk of early voting occurred while students were on Spring Break, so on the primary day, election judges at two precincts registered about 1,500 new voters — more than three times the number who were previously registered there.
When the November election occurs it will be a new academic year, so most of them will have moved to a new address — and will need to update their registration before casting a ballot. Michael estimates the new law will cost the central Illinois county an additional $250,000 this year.
"Why pass a bill when you can't even pay for it?" she said. "I think the Legislature created a mess. A very expensive mess."
Others have praised the measure, however, including President Barack Obama, who thanked lawmakers for approving the law during his address to the General Assembly last month and called on other states to follow Illinois' lead.
Democratic state Sen. Don Harmon, who sponsored the election bill, said "it's unfortunate that a significant and important modernization of our voting laws has been hamstrung" because Rauner vetoed the budget Democrats sent him last year. The governor has said he did so because the plan called for $4 billion more in spending than the state was going to take in.
Harmon's measure is just the latest item to be affected by the budget stalemate. Social services have been severely cut, and there have been reductions in basic government services, such as driver's license facilities and public health departments.