Election officials in Illinois are encouraged vote by mail could increase the number of voters and provide a safer election during the coronavirus pandemic.
The need for considering expanded vote by mail was evidenced this week following concerns about delays, long lines and voter disenfranchisement in the wake of the Wisconsin primary.
“I think if voters want to vote, they will do it regardless of the method. (Vote by mail) is certainly convenient, and in the situation we are in at the moment, certainly a safety precaution,” said Julie Stapler, Boone County clerk.
Tom Bride, director of the Peoria County Election Commission, said vote by mail would allow a greater percentage of eligible voters to vote. "In states that have gone to all vote by mail they have seen an increase in voter turnout with the most gain in younger and voters otherwise less likely to vote, with even higher gains in local (off-year) elections," Bride said.
In the past five general or primary elections in Peoria County, between 14.6% and 3.9% of the total vote was done by mail. Over the same time in Knox County, between 7.9% and 2.6% of the total vote was done by mail. In Sangamon County, the percentage of total vote via mail-in ballots has gone up in recent years, from 3.2% of all ballots in the 2016 primary to 7.9% this year. In the 2018 general election, 8.6% voted by mail. And in Rockford, 5.9% of all ballots cast in the 2020 primary were mail-in.
Expect contention this year as parties try to increase vote by mail nationwide. For example, President Donald Trump has said multiple times this week he is against vote by mail. “People cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country,” said Trump, who requested an absentee mail-in-ballot last month for Florida’s primary.
Democrats and Republicans are preparing for a months-long, state-by-state legal fight over how citizens can safely cast their ballots should the coronavirus outbreak persist toward November's election.
The outcome of the court battles — expected to litigate mail-in voting rules, voter identification requirements and safe access to polls — may have a significant impact on the presidential election.
Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California-Irvine, tracks election litigation and said it soared to a high record in 2018 — an unusual mark for a non-presidential year. “Part of it is hyperpolarization,” Hasen said. “Part of it is that we have a lot of close elections, and people realize that, in really close elections, rules matter."
As for the legitimacy of each mail-in vote, as is the case in most Illinois jurisdictions, those mailing in a ballot sign the envelope. There is also a place for anyone assisting the voter to sign (plus the voter), and also a place for anyone the voter authorizes to return the ballot to sign (plus the voter). The signature on the envelope is verified against the signature on file. If they don't match, the election commission contacts the voter to confirm or allow them to correct the signature.
In Peoria, the election commission sends out a final update on the morning of Election Day to all electronic poll books — the tablets election judges check at precincts to log a voter voting — with the most up-to-date listing of early voters and all people requesting vote-by-mail ballots and all those that have been returned.
If a voter shows up on that vote-by-mail list, they can only cast a "provisional" ballot unless the voter physically surrenders their vote-by-mail ballot to the judges.
Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray, whose office oversees elections in the county, said there is a way to “securely and accurately” tabulate mail-in votes. He added there would also be challenges in increasing vote by mail, including “a substantial increase in expense for printing, postage, staffing and equipment to securely and timely process much more vote-by-mail in advance of Election Day.” Gray added that with more ballots being postmarked Election Day and arriving during the 14-day post-election period when they can still be counted, results of close races will take longer to reveal.
Ken DeCoster of the Rockford Register Star, Bernard Schoenburg of the State Journal-Register, Tom Martin of the Register-Mail and The Associated Press contributed to this report.