In theory, automatic voter registration is a wonderful idea.

Democracy is only as good as the number of people participating in it. Making it easier for voters to register should be a nationwide goal. It’s only through registration that we can get people involved in the process and raise some of those embarrassing voter participation numbers.

But the wonderful idea turns disastrous if it’s not properly implemented. That’s what’s happened in Illinois. Despite assurances it wouldn’t happen, an error in the system led to a possible 545 non-U.S. citizens registered to vote.

Unquestionably, this is unacceptable.

The automatic voter registration program went live on July 2, 2018. Eligible citizens were automatically registered to vote as they interacted with certain state offices. There is an opt-out option. In the last 17 months, as many as 574 people who identified themselves as non-U.S. citizens had their information forwarded to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Not all of those people are non-U.S. citizens. Sometimes a wrong box got checked. But 545 of those registrations were finalized, and 16 cast ballots in 2018 and 2019 elections.

The office of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has since contacted those voters and told them not to vote. White’s office also said all 545 are lawfully present in the United States, and the issue did not involve any undocumented immigrants.

Approximately 7.9 million voters are registered in Illinois, so the 19 ballots cast by the 16 ineligible voters doesn’t signify a widespread conspiracy of voter fraud. But that doesn’t mean elections might not have been swayed. Illegal votes were cast in Champaign, Christian, Cook, DuPage, Lee, Macon and Peoria counties and the city of Chicago.

Voters for Macon County sheriff know that race was decided by a single vote.

The Secretary of State’s office said the glitch was immediately corrected after its discovery on Dec. 13, 2019, but it failed to notify people it should have notified. Which people? For starters, the ones raising their voices loudest right now, specifically “Republicans — and one Democrat — demand answers,” as reported in a headline in the Chicago Sun-Times. A letter of concern was sent to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan by five Republicans who serve on the House Executive Committee. Democratic Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill said he might call for Senate hearings.

The delay from the Secretary of State’s office is alarming. There should not have been any delay in making the error known as widely as possible. The instinct to make a correction and stay quiet is understandable. But when it comes to voter trust, too much in Illinois has been circumspect, and like it or not, the failure to communicate thoroughly about the issue – as well as the 17-month failure to catch the error – does nothing to battle the most pessimistic observers.

“Outrage” is a word too easily used these days. There’s an entire social media culture of outrage, people who live merely to be offended. Yet Illinois Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, was on the mark when he said, “The fact that the Secretary of State kept this a secret for 17 months is outrageous.” Caulkins added, “Protecting the integrity of our electoral process should have been a top priority. It’s obvious a better system needs to be put into place and it should start with not registering non-citizens to vote.”

There seems to be a reluctance in suspending the law. But that’s the best option. Faith can only be restored through transparency. With the March elections a mere seven weeks away, fixing the problem beyond any doubt is a priority.

The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Sunday

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