Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Lawmakers on Friday approved a bill that would expand Illinoisans’ ability to avoid the ballot box, and possibly coronavirus,in November.
The major expansion to vote by mail in Illinois law would only affect the Nov. 3 presidential election in an effort to keep voters safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
“No one knows what this pandemic is going to be looking like in November,” said St. Clair County Clerk Thomas Holbrook, who supports the plan because it’s less risky for voters and election judges.
But Holbrook, other county clerks and Republican lawmakers expressed concern about the strain on local budgets as they try to pay for additional printing and postage costs. GOP state Senate members also raised questions about fraud.
“We already have some of the easiest vote-by-mail procedures in the country,” said state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington. “This just opens the door for rampant fraud, diminishing the value of everyone’s vote.”
The Senate passed the vote-by-mail bill 37-19. It now goes to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said he will sign the bill.
Here’s how the vote-by-mail expansion is expected to work.
How will voting change?
Voters can still cast ballots on Election Day, but only at a single location in their county.
For those who want to vote during poll hours on Nov. 3,each county clerk or election official will establish a polling place place either at their office or in the jurisdiction’s largest municipality.
Election officials can also establish curbside voting where Democratic and Republican election judges assist voters in casting ballots from their cars.
All early voting sites will remain open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Early voting begins October 19 and ends November 2.
Election officials can also establish special early voting hours dedicated to people who are more susceptible to COVID-19.
The bill makes it easier for people to vote by mail.
Anyone who applied to vote in 2018, 2019 or 2020 will automatically receive a vote-by-mail application through the postal service or email. Applications can be returned through mail, email or personal delivery to the local election authority.
Voters will receive an official ballot by October 6 at the latest. They can be mailed back or turned in at a local collection site. By Sept. 15, the secretary of state’s office will send a reminder to anyone who received a vote-by-mail application but did not return it.
The bill would make Nov. 3 a state holiday, meaning schools and government offices, with the exception of election authorities, will be closed.
Who’s paying for it?
State Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, said county clerks he spoke with expressed concerns about the cost of increased vote-by-mail. Each application costs between $1 and $4 to print, not including postage, according to Clinton County Clerk Vicky Albers. In St. Clair County, Holbrook estimates his office will spend at least $1 million more on mail-in ballots this year.
The bill orders the State Board of Elections to adopt emergency rules that would allow it to reimburse local election officials using federal money.
Any expenses related to the 2020 general election “incurred as a result of COVID-19” and the new rules would be eligible for reimbursement.
State Sen. Julie Morrison, the northern Illinois Democrat who introduced the bill, said her legislation originally proposed sending a vote-by-mail ballot to every registered voter. But because of “financial constraints and the integrity of that list,” Democrats drew back the language to send applications only to those who applied to vote from 2018 to 2020.
Questions about voter fraud
Given recent gaffes by the State Board of Elections, Republicans questioned the state’s ability to securely and accurately expand vote-by-mail. The board faced criticism after 15 people who said they were noncitizens cast ballots in recent years. In another instance, the secretary of state’s office nearly registered 16-year-olds to vote.
Steve McClure, R-Springfield, said the collection sites could allow for ballot tampering. He said the legislation should include language specifying how to secure them.
Morrison said the collection sites could take the form of a security deposit box similar to receptacles for unused prescription drugs at pharmacies.
It’s up to each local election official to decide how to set up a collection site, or “they may decide not to have that at all,” Morrison said.
As in previous elections, a bipartisan panel of election judges will verify each vote-by-mail ballot.
A panel of three election judges — no more than two from the same political party — will compare voter signatures on the envelope of the vote-by-mail ballot with the signature of the voter on file in the election authority office.
Ballots can be rejected for several reasons: if all three judges agree the signatures do not match; if the envelope contains no signature; if it was delivered open; if the voter has already cast a ballot, or if they’re not registered. The election authority will then notify the voter and provide options for challenging the decision.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he would have liked for a vote-by-mail application sent to every Illinoisan, but said the bill is “a reasonable compromise.”
Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.