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Voter roll purges are ‘not going to happen’ in Illinois, a state election official says

I Voted stickers on a roll

Election season is around the corner, and so are renewed conversations around voter fraud and election integrity.

States like Wisconsin and Georgia have recently removed hundreds of thousands of names off their voter lists, in what critics are calling “voter purges.” And in preparation for the 2020 election, the Ohio secretary of state removed nearly half a million names, thousands erroneously.

Election officials in those states say they are cleaning up their voter lists, deleting voters who are inactive, have moved or passed away. But voting rights groups say voter purges are often flawed and states should instead implement same-day voter registration.

So where does Illinois fall in all of this? According to Matt Dietrich with the Illinois Board of Elections, it’s very hard for eligible voters to get kicked off the lists here. Even if voters are removed, eligible Illinois voters still have many ways to ensure that their ballot is cast.

Mawa Iqbal recently talked to Dietrich about how Illinois officials ensure voter rolls are accurate and how eligible voters can make sure they’re counted.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How does an election authority verify that a person is eligible to vote?

We have a lot of tools through our Illinois voter registration system, which is a proprietary online tool that's available to our local election authorities for them to validate new registrants, and also to make sure that people are still living where they say they are living — through social security numbers, for example.

They do also have access to death records, for example, from the Illinois Department of Public Health, from the Social Security Administration. ERIC also references those.

Who is ERIC?

Electronic Registration Information Center. It's a consortium of 33 states plus the District of Columbia, and Illinois is one member. It links those 33 member states so that we can exchange information on voters who may have moved out of state and are now registered in a different state. And that information can come back to the original election authority in Illinois, who can then remove that voter once their identity is validated.

ERIC has access to driver's license information from all of our member states, which also inherently would give it social security number access, so you can cross reference a lot of those things.

ERIC is probably the best tool that any state can have for maintaining accurate voter rolls.

Does the state board of elections remove names?

We don't remove anyone from the voter rolls. That's all the responsibility of the 108 local election authorities in Illinois. Voter lists maintenance is a process that happens every day throughout the year.

How do local election authorities go about removing names?

Before every election, the local election authority mails you a voter card. That card can only be delivered to the address that the voter has on file. So if the person no longer lives at that residence, then that voter card bounces back to the election authority, and that starts a process where they attempt to contact the voter by other means.

Here’s a breakdown of the voter removal process: 

  1. Election officials send a piece of mail that can be forwarded in case a voter left a forwarding address. 
  2. If the voter gets that new mail, they can change their address to the new address and remain an active voter. 
  3. If the voter doesn’t get that mail, they are listed as “inactive” for that election cycle, or two years.

    1. But, inactive voters are still registered. So, you can still show up to the polling place and vote, making you “active” again. 
  4. If you don’t vote, election officials will make a second attempt to reach inactive voters during the second election cycle. 
  5. If the official is still unable to reach voters after this, then they can be removed from the list — that’s all about four years in the making.

It's a long process and the reason that works out that way is because you don't want to have people removed without cause.

But I think the main thing to remember in Illinois is that in contrast to other states, not voting is not going to be grounds for starting the process that would move you out of voter registration.

If your voter card can't be delivered to you, and your local election authority begins the process of attempting to contact you, you're only moved to inactive status, you're still considered registered. So if you show up at your polling place to vote, then you can reactivate your active status, you just have to confirm your address.

That's one of the few cases where you may have to show ID where your voter normally is or you'd have to verify somehow that yes, “I do live at the address that I'm registered at, even though my voter card was not delivered to me there.”

What can voters do to make sure they don’t get kicked off the list?

You can get online on our website anytime you move, you can go to elections.il.gov and register. If you are not registered, you can register on Election Day — you can show up at 6:50 p.m. before the polls are going to close, fill out your registration and vote, essentially.

And now we also have automatic voter registration. When individuals apply for benefits through the Department of Human Services, for example, or if you applied through the Department of Natural Resources for a hunting or fishing license, you can also register to vote at that time as well.

But the main flow of voters into the system through automatic voter registration comes through driver's licenses. And the big deal about that is your registration now follows you.

We have a lot more tools now for making sure that all the voters are accounted for.

Mawa Iqbal covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow @mawa_iqbal.

Mawa is a statehouse reporter for WBEZ and Illinois Public Radio.