Black voters turn out en masse in Hyde Park in 1980. Credit: Sun-Times Archive

In the months leading up to an election, many faithful CTA riders regularly encounter this sight at their stops: a volunteer clutching a clipboard, calling out to passengers on the platform, “Register to vote. Change your address.”

That could soon become a thing of the past, if the nationwide push for automatic voter registration ultimately wins out in Illinois. Thousands of voters would no longer need nudges from volunteers or election-related mailers to register or update their information. Under the new system, a trip to the DMV for a driver’s license, among other interactions with the state, would automatically enter eligible voters’ information unless they opted out.

That’s about as straightforward as it gets. The change would allow millions of eligible but unregistered voters to participate with relative ease, and potentially save money while cleaning up the rolls and reducing the potential for fraud, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice.

But despite the state legislature’s sweeping approval of automatic voter registration in May, Governor Bruce Rauner recently vetoed the bill, noting his concerns about potential “voter fraud” and conflicts with federal election law. When lawmakers return to session in November, they’ll have the option of trying to override the veto.

Rauner claims he’s earnest about increasing voter participation. So why the additional hassle? Is it really about so-called voter fraud—or do partisan politics threaten access to this basic civil right yet again?

First, let’s just get one thing straight: reports of voter fraud are greatly exaggerated.

Voter fraud is extremely rare. As Politifact notes, the News21 investigative project analyzed roughly 2,000 alleged cases of voter fraud since the 2000 elections. The project, which released its conclusions in 2012, found that “while voter fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tougher voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.”

Nationwide, News21 found only 150 alleged cases of double voting, 56 cases of noncitizens voting, and ten cases of voter impersonation. Simply put, voter fraud isn’t a thing—despite the insistence from Rauner and others that it is.

Concerns about so-called voter fraud are being used as a racist smokescreen to undermine or thwart the participation of black people.

There’s also a broader context that can’t be ignored.

In New Jersey, Trump supporter Governor Chris Christie vetoed yet another automatic voter registration bill in his state, with “voter fraud” as his rationale. A federal judge just ruled that voting laws in North Carolina—with strict photo ID requirements and cuts to early voting and same-day voter registration, among other restrictions—were enacted with the intent of suppressing black votes with “surgical precision.” GOP officials there also claimed the regulations helped prevent voter fraud. In July, a different federal appeals court struck down voter ID laws in Texas, where Republican governor Greg Abbott likewise used claims of voter fraud as his scapegoat.

And as the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, Donald Trump told a primarily white rural crowd in Pennsylvania—in remarks with racial overtones—that such fraud could cheat him in “certain parts” of the state. He’s now launching an effort to recruit so-called election observers, asking supporters to help him “stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election.”

“We’re hiring a lot of people. We’re putting a lot of law enforcement—we’re going to watch Pennsylvania, go down to certain areas and watch and study,” Trump said, bemoaning the state’s recently struck-down voter identification laws. He also said it’s necessary to “make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”

It’s beginning to sound an awful lot like a return to yesteryear, back when America was supposedly “great,” as Trump claims. Now as then, concerns about so-called voter fraud are being used as a racist smokescreen to undermine or thwart the participation of black people. Immigrants and lower-income white voters were also targets at certain times. Trump’s recruitment of “election observers” recalls the extrajudicial (and often violent) intimidation tactics used to target blacks in addition to laws that instituted literacy tests and poll taxes, all aimed at voter suppression.

In 2013, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which designated parts of the country that had traditionally barred blacks from voting as being required to report voting law changes to the federal government. Without the provision, there’s been a redoubled effort to pass restrictive voting laws or resist measures that would ease access to the ballot box—including automatic voter registration.

I won’t get into the murky territory of assessing Rauner’s intentions with the veto. But without question, his action plays into the current iteration of a long-standing, racist trend to keep black and brown people (who consistently align with Democrats) from exercising their right to vote. Whether or not he recognizes that is anyone’s guess.

So far, roughly two dozen states are considering automatic voter registration laws, while four states—California, Vermont, Oregon, and West Virginia—have already made them legal.

It’d be a shame if a silly, racialized myth prevented Illinois from joining them soon.  v