Illinois Debates Vote-By-Mail Ballots for 2020 Election Amidst Pandemic

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With less than six months to go until the general election and with concerns over social distancing at polling places, some Illinois leaders are pushing to significantly expand the use of vote-by-mail ballots.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Lake Forest, plans to introduce a bill that would allow the state to mail a ballot to every registered voter in Illinois. Under the provisions of the bill, select polling places would remain open for early voting and on Election Day for those who don’t feel comfortable casting ballots by mail.

“I've heard of a lot of interest in having a vote by mail program so that people do feel comfortable and safe on Election Day,” said. Sen. Morrison.

Current law allows Illinoisans to request a vote-by-mail ballot as early as Aug. 5. Sen. Morrison said her bill would only apply to the 2020 Election as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic, so voters don’t have to choose between their right to vote and their health and to protect poll workers.

“It’s the responsibility of the government to plan and prepare,” Sen. Morrison said.

Morrison points to states such as Colorado and Washington, where the majority of voting is done through mail. Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to send registered voters a ballot.

An April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed two-thirds of Americans support mail-in voting in November.

If asteroids are raining down on Nov. 3 and the zombies are wandering the streets, we're still going to have an election. It's incumbent upon us to make sure it's safe to go out and vote."

Charles Stewart, Political Science Professor, Stanford-MIT Project on a Healthy Election

But expanding mail balloting in the given time frame will be a “tremendous undertaking,” experts said.

“The timelines I’ve seen published suggested that states should have decided a couple of weeks ago to optimally go in that direction,” said political science professor Charles Stewart, co-founder of the Stanford-MIT Project on a Healthy Election.

The project, which was formed to address the threat the pandemic poses to the 2020 Election, supports a significant shift to mail balloting, which will include a massive investment in infrastructure and equipment.

In Illinois, postage alone is estimated between $20 million and $38 million. Other equipment counties would need include secure drop boxes, upgraded ballot scanners and more.

Illinois received $13.7 million in federal funds to address election security issues specific to the pandemic, but experts said it is not nearly enough.

Data from the Illinois State Board of Elections shows Illinoisans don’t often choose the option to vote by mail. In the 2016 presidential election, just 6.5 percent of the total vote cast ballots by mail. That number jumped to nine percent in the recent March primary.

The state of Illinois cannot even keep up with unemployment benefits applications and should not be trusted with the processing of millions of voter ballots.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin

The Illinois Association of Clerks and Recorders said it has concerns with mailing an unsolicited ballot to registered voters.

“We would certainly like to see Illinois have a more robust vote by mail program, however we would like that implemented with the integrity of the election in mind. In states that have adopted a full vote by mail system, it has taken several election cycles to accomplish,” a spokesperson said.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said a plan to mail ballots to everyone won’t work.

“A vote by mail program is currently the law and an option for all Illinois voters. Springfield needs to get out of the business of telling people what to do. The state of Illinois cannot even keep up with unemployment benefits applications and should not be trusted with the processing of the millions of voter ballots,” Durkin said in a statement.

President Donald Trump has been an outspoken critic of statewide mail-in voting, claiming in an April 8 tweet that it leaves a “tremendous potential for voter fraud.”

There is no proof of that, and experts reiterate that voting by mail is safe and secure.

“It relies on election officials on communicating with their voters about how to do it properly and letting them know that they can track their ballots,” Stewart said.

Still, some cyber security experts, already worried about how the pandemic could influence the election, said the controversy surrounding mail in voting and the administrative challenges ahead are prime feeding ground for disinformation.

“That will give rise to conspiracy theories with people saying the election was hacked or rigged,” said Jake Braun, Executive Director of the Cyber Policy Initiative at the University of Chicago.

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