St. Louis Area Residents Voted Early In Large Numbers In 2020 — Will That Continue?
The 2020 general election was pivotal for many reasons, but especially for the way people across the country cast their ballots.
The coronavirus pandemic forced many states, including Missouri and Illinois, to change their election laws to make voting more accessible and safer.
These new or expanded options led to a record number of people voting before Nov. 3, with early votes accounting for the majority of nearly 160 million votes cast nationwide, the most in any presidential election.
In the St. Louis region, the number of people who voted early in 2020 more than doubled in nearly every jurisdiction compared to 2016, according to a St. Louis Public Radio analysis of data from the Illinois State Board of Elections and Missouri Secretary of State. (For the purposes of this article, “early voting” or “the early vote” refers to ballots cast before Nov. 3, either in person in Illinois, absentee in Missouri or by mail in either state.)
The question for future elections is whether people will behave as they did in the 2020 general election and vote early in higher numbers or revert to voting in person on Election Day. And, in Missouri, whether temporary alternative voting options will become permanent.
“There’s some sign that people shift their behavior once, and then they get into a habit,” said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Gaines said early voting’s popularity has grown gradually since the 1970s, when states including California and Iowa first introduced no-excuse absentee voting options.
“2020 is a valuable experiment because so many states made it so much easier to vote by mail,” Gaines said. “A lot of people were nudged or in some cases shoved in that direction.”
What voters want
Debra Elmore, a 53-year-old St. Clair County resident who cares for her two autistic adult children, was grateful for the option.
“We have two very high-risk boys health wise, and we’ve been in isolation since the beginning of March,” she said.
Voting by mail in November meant she didn’t have to worry about disrupting her sons’ routines. Elmore said she’ll continue to vote by mail after trying it for the first time in 2020 for its convenience and because she could spend time researching every aspect of the ballot.
“It was the most educated voting I’ve ever done, to be honest,” Elmore said. “There’s always a judge or something that I didn’t know was on the ballot. Normally if I had been in the ballot box doing it I would have left it blank.”
St. Clair County resident Lisa Bobbitt, 49, also cast her ballot through the mail this year, and she wants to see expanded early options stay in the future. But Bobbitt said she’s unsure if she’d personally vote early again in the future.
“I kind of like to go into the poll and physically vote, it’s just one of those things,” she said. “I’m used to the camaraderie of talking to people while you’re waiting in line.”
Early voting can be especially helpful for those whose first language is not English, said St. Louis County resident Caroline Fan, 39, who worked to mobilize Asian Americans in the 2020 election.
More options to vote ahead of Election Day in Missouri would provide more time for some voters to comprehend their ballot or have relatives translate it for them, Fan said.
“I think if we want to encourage folks to participate in our democracy, we have to make it easier for them,” Fan said.
Other St. Louis-area residents don’t plan on changing their habits. Steve Henderson, who sat on his walker while waiting in line in west St. Louis County to cast his ballot on Election Day, said he doesn't trust voting by mail.
“I don’t want to go through all this and find out my name ended up in the trash bin," Henderson, 72, said. “I wouldn’t miss this at all unless I was in a bed and couldn’t get out.”
Madison County resident Linda Anderson, 58, shares Henderson’s viewpoint. She lives up the road from her polling station and easily voted on Election Day. Afterward she helped her mom, who’s currently undergoing chemotherapy, get to the polls.
“She did her very best to walk in and place her own vote,” Anderson said. “I would be just as determined to place it in person myself.”
Coronavirus election changes
Both Missouri and Illinois lawmakers passed election changes ahead of November to make voting easier and more accessible because of the pandemic.
Illinois required county election officials to send vote-by-mail applications to anyone who cast a ballot in 2018, 2019 or 2020. State lawmakers also established new collection sites for mail ballots and implemented curbside voting.
Compared to 2016, the number of people who cast ballots before Election Day in 2020 more than doubled in Illinois and more than tripled in Missouri. Voter turnout in general also was higher in 2020 compared to 2016.
Two-thirds of votes in Illinois and 30% of votes in Missouri were cast before Nov. 3. In 2016, those shares were 33% and 11%, respectively.
This level of early voting may not last because many of the changes that expanded voting access this year were made on an emergency basis, Gaines said. The changes in Missouri and Illinois have expired.
The rules in Missouri reverted to its old excuse-based absentee voting system, eliminating voting by mail as an option. Meanwhile, Illinois retains no-excuse, early in-person and mail-in voting, options that have existed since 2010.
“I don’t think the entire population realized that we’ve been using a vote-by-mail process for many years,” said Vicky Albers, Clinton County, Illinois, clerk and recorder. “It’s not something that just got pulled out of somebody’s hat.”
Residents in Clinton County mostly voted on Election Day in years past. About 11% of the county’s votes in 2016 came in before Election Day. That nearly tripled in 2020, according to preliminary data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Albers hesitates to say if early voting will become a trend for her constituents.
“There’s still a good percentage that want the option to go to the polls,” she said. “They don’t want that to go away.”
Southern Illinoisans outside of Clinton County have embraced early voting, which starts 40 days before Election Day in the state, more.
“Early voting has historically increased over the elections,” said Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza. “It is getting more and more popular because it’s just so darn convenient.”
Of the 36 counties in southern Illinois, St. Clair and Madison had the highest percentages of people who voted before Nov 3. Just over half of all ballots in St. Clair and Madison counties were cast early.
Both counties saw modest growth in the number of people voting early in person this year compared to 2016. Mail voting, by contrast, exploded.
"I don’t think the entire population realized that we’ve been using a vote-by-mail process for many years. It’s not something that just got pulled out of somebody’s hat."
The number of returned vote-by-mail ballots quadrupled for St. Clair County and quintupled for Madison County.
“People really seem to enjoy it, being able to exercise voting early and especially the vote-by-mail,” said St. Clair County Clerk Tom Holbrook. “We had many voters asked to be put on a permanent vote-by-mail list so that they get one automatically.”
Holbrook attributes those requests to the convenience voting by mail affords.
“Rather than being set into a locked time on Election Day, people can take time to research the candidates,” Holbrook said. “And they can vote in the privacy of their own homes.”
The push for convenience also came at a cost for some election authorities, turning what’s typically a single day of voting into a monthslong “election season.”
“The more things the state did to try and make things easier for the voters, I don’t think they really considered the back end of it and what kind of issues it caused for our offices,” Albers said.
Early voting trends are less clear in Missouri since the state historically requires an excuse to receive an absentee ballot, which may keep some people from seeking one.
“It is kind of an open secret that a lot of folks who vote by absentee ballot just pick one of those reasons because it is a very difficult provision to enforce criminally,” said St. Louis County Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey.
Overall, Missouri residents took advantage of the state’s expanded early voting rules, overwhelmingly using the absentee option. Statewide, 30% of ballots were cast before Election Day, tripling levels from 2016.
The early voting rates were higher in the St. Louis area, where 36% of St. Louis votes and 43% of St. Louis County votes were cast early. St. Charles and Jefferson counties were closer to the statewide early voting level, with 31% and 28% of their ballots cast before Election Day, respectively.
The emergency expansion of Missouri’s voting rules in 2020 has some local election leaders pushing for a no-excuse absentee voting system for future elections.
“By and large, we feel it would uncomplicate the absentee voting process,” Fey said. “Now that almost all of our neighboring states allow some form of no-excuse absentee voting or early voting, it’s becoming increasingly confusing for voters.”
Officials on both sides of party lines agree the current absentee system is cumbersome.
“We work so hard to get people registered. I don’t know why we can’t make it easier to cast their ballot without having to make up an excuse,” said Republican Henry County Clerk Rick Watson.
"It is kind of an open secret that a lot of folks who vote by absentee ballot just pick one of those reasons because it is a very difficult provision to enforce criminally."
Partisan debate for change
Unless the state Legislature intervenes, Missourians will have fewer options to cast a ballot before 2021 elections. Lawmakers, especially Republicans, may be reluctant to make any changes if the pandemic eases.
“Republicans tend to stress security,” said Gaines, the political science professor. “They tend to be suspicious of anything that makes it easier to vote that also makes it harder to establish voters’ identities.”
On the other side, Democrats usually favor policies that make voting easier and more convenient. This partisan debate is not new and spans decades, Gaines said.
In general, public support for election security measures like signature requirements and the production of photo identification is high, he added.
“In that respect, Republicans have public opinion on their side,” Gaines said.
It’s unclear whether any changes will be coming from Jefferson City in the legislative session that begins Wednesday.
“The Legislature has not had much appetite for election administration reform lately,” Fey said. “I don’t know if I hold out a lot of hope. But if there’s any chance, it should probably be this session because it’s front in everybody’s mind after the presidential election.”
In a recent interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he isn’t interested in expanding voting by mail.
“We want people voting in person as much as possible,” he said.
Ashcroft said in-person voting is the best way to ensure residents have confidence in the results of an election. While he doesn’t favor voting by mail, Ashcroft said he would be open to expanding in-person absentee voting.
“There may be some trade-offs there,” he said. “I’m willing to look at that.”
Democrats in the Legislature have signaled they’ll bring forward bills to expand voting options this session.
But, Missourians could force a change on their own, said Anita Manion, who teaches political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“It's possible that we would see what we've seen in so many issues in Missouri,” she said. “When change is desired by Missourians they end up putting something on the ballot, circumventing the state Legislature.”
Political correspondent Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this report.
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