BY TERRY BIBO
From the relatively serene vantage point of Central Illinois, there are two peculiar items of interest about voting rights.
First, there are more states with laws on the books to restrict voting rights today (32) than there are actual cases of individual voter fraud since the century began (31).
Second, Illinois is not scraping bottom this time. Springfield may not be able to cough up a state budget. But it has passed laws — notably a “no-excuse” law allowing mail-in votes which took effect in 2010 — to make life easier for voters.
“In my estimation, we have done everything in the state of Illinois except walk a ballot to people,” said Tazewell County Clerk Christie Webb.
“I wouldn’t go as far as the clerk,” said Keith Boeckelman, chair of the department of political science at Western Illinois University. “(But) Illinois does not have particularly restrictive voting laws. Same-day registration was the last barrier.”
This does not mean the system is perfect here. (Ask Peoria City Council candidate Amr Elsamny. He recently filed suit saying the Peoria County Election Commission was wrong to mail a ballot back to an elderly voter. He lost his spot on the April 4 ballot by one vote.) But even in tough budget times, it appears this area prefers to err on the side of encouraging rather than discouraging citizens.
By the numbers: votes and fraud
Outgoing president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria Cheryl Budzinski does know.
“I think we are very fortunate in Illinois to have access to many ways to cast our ballots,” she said.
From her vantage point, it’s more puzzling that voters seldom exercise the rights they have.
Even in a presidential election, America is an international democratic disgrace. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. lags behind Luxembourg and barely exceeds Estonia.
In 2016, 54.7 percent of the voting age population showed up in November. More than 90 million eligible voters didn’t. In Illinois, efforts to ease the process may have helped, a little. About 5.7 million people, or 56.1 percent of the voting age population, voted in November. (Check electproject.org to compare state totals.)
Budzinski says turnout numbers drop about 20 percent with each step down the governmental ladder. For a governor’s race, she expects about 40 percent; for a municipal race, 20 percent. Primary counts are usually more dismal. When a hot mayoral race in Washington prompted a 20 percent turnout in Tazewell County in February, League members were thrilled.
“We could have expected to have 5 percent in this election,” Budzinski said.
If voters are scarce, a fraudulent voter is the Sasquatch of politics. Writing for The Washington Post in 2014, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt said there were 31 cases of voter fraud in the 1 billion votes cast in 2000-2014 elections. (And Levitt suspected some of that fraud was itself fraudulent.) A Department of Justice report noted “no apparent cases of in-person voter impersonation . . . in the United States, from 2004 through July 3, 2014.”
And Budzinski knows of no cases around here.
Yet fear of the fraudulent voter is used to keep many real voters from exercising their rights.
Actual facts may not support the idea of rampant voter fraud, but a substantial chunk of the electorate believes otherwise.
A September poll by the Washington Post/ABC News revealed 46 percent of registered voters believe it happens “often.” When President Donald Trump offered an alternative fact — that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton thanks to 3 million improperly cast votes — one in four voters believed him, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult survey.
Fear of fraud, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s changes to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, are cited as prompting many voter-ID laws. Such laws are now on the books in 32 states. (West Virginia’s will go into effect in 2018; North Carolina’s was struck down and awaits Supreme Court review.) A 2016 Gallup poll found 95 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats favor voter-ID requirements.
With a nod to the late Johnny Carson’s classic one-liner about swine flu vaccine, this may be a “cure for which there is no known disease.” There are, however, side effects. The impact is not bipartisan.
Minority voters are less likely to have proper identification and more apt to cast their ballots for Democrats. Noting “citizens who don’t vote can be ignored,” researchers at the University of California San Diego reported voter-ID laws depress the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks and mixed race Americans and may thereby favor Republicans. The federal judge who struck down North Carolina’s voter-ID law last July said the Republican-controlled legislature had written it to target black voters “with almost surgical precision.”
Minorities are disproportionately represented among convicted felons, who also are subject to voting restrictions. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Illinois is one of 14 states which say felons cannot vote while incarcerated, but return the right automatically upon release. Twenty-eight states deny the vote until the sentence is completed, then restore it automatically. Nine states say felons cannot vote again unless their right to vote is restored by the governor or the courts. (Some states have more than one category. See http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx)
“Some of these states have a long history of making it more difficult for minorities to vote,” said Boeckelman. “Illinois has kind of gone the opposite direction.”
As with everything in Illinois, however, the budget is a nagging worry. Both Budzinski and Boeckelman noted the number of polling places is reduced at times, largely for budget reasons. Budzinkski cited Tazewell County, which limited some times and places in the February primary.
Webb explained, “It’s expensive to have someone sit there all day for two votes.”
Tazewell’s clerk said the issue is not just money, but the availability of voting judges. She tries to balance expected turnout with resources; all times and polling places will be available on April 4. She touted mail-in voting as a handy alternative — “Just call us. We’ll send you a ballot.”