Illinois voters were presented with an unusual (and sometimes confusing) assortment of options in the Nov. 3 election. An emergency election law — meant to encourage safe voting during the COVID-19 pandemic — included more early voting hours and a big push for mail balloting, along with offering secure drop boxes for those who preferred to deliver their ballots in person.
The goal was to allow voters to avoid crowded precincts on Election Day.
All of the changes were temporary. Lawmakers and election officials want to study how well they worked before making any of them permanent. With the election in the books, the Better Government Association asked voters to tell us how things worked for them.
Almost 750 people took our survey, roughly one third from Chicago, one third from suburban Cook County and one third from elsewhere in Illinois.
Here’s what we learned:
Despite record demand for mail ballots, relatively few of our respondents (23 percent) actually voted via the U.S. Postal Service. Nearly a third (32 percent) filled out mail ballots but delivered them to a dropbox instead. About 45 percent voted in person.
In general, Downstate voters showed a slight preference for in-person voting. Voters in suburban Cook County and especially Chicago were more likely to have requested mail ballots — though suburbanites were far more likely to mail them back than Chicagoans, who favored the drop boxes.
Across the state, those who voted in person opted strongly (more than 2-1) for early voting.
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Graphic by Joann Wong/BGA
Providing a variety of voting options was a strong positive. Many voters who planned to cast their ballots one way ended up doing it another. Though the emergency law was passed with the pandemic in mind, postal delays became a worry later in the summer, thanks to cost-cutting by the U.S. Postal Service.
“Because of the skulduggery at the USPS, I chose not to mail my completed ballot. Instead, I put it into a drop box at my polling place a few days before Election Day. No lines, no COVID exposure.” (Chicago)
“I requested a mail-in ballot but it never arrived so I did in-person early instead. I tried calling the number to track it down but their mailbox was full and I couldn’t reach anyone.” (Chicago)
Voters raved about the drop boxes, which were allowed, but not required, under the temporary law. Chicago provided them at early voting sites in all 50 wards, and voters embraced them. But some jurisdictions didn’t have them at all.
Voters enjoyed bypassing the sometimes long lines at early voting sites to hand their mail ballots to an attendant, who checked the signature and other information before putting it in the secure box.
“Really smooth and I liked voting this way. The ballot box itself could have been more obvious so my suggestion would be to make standard obvious ballot boxes across the state. Expand locations and make the ballot boxes obvious and standardized.” (Madison County)
“I filled in the address incorrectly on my ballot envelope. I had not added city, state and zip code. Fortunately, I dropped my ballot off at an early voting site, and the poll worker checked, and let me know what I needed to do.” (Chicago)
Messaging about the various options could have been better. Those who had second thoughts about mailing their ballots still could choose to vote in person, for example, but not all knew to bring their mail ballot and surrender it. That meant they had to sign affidavits saying they hadn’t used the ballot. (In some cases they were required to vote provisionally.) This slowed things down at the voting sites, but does not appear to have disenfranchised voters.
“On Election Day many voters who were registered VBM changed their mind and came to vote in person but did not bring in their VBM ballots to surrender.” (Frankfort election judge)
“The one thing I think needed to be a little bit clearer for folks was that you cannot bring your mail-in ballot to a polling place on Election Day unless it’s to a designated drop box. I worked as an election judge at a non-Early Voting polling location on Election Day and had many people come in trying to turn in their VBM ballots. Otherwise the experience was really seamless!” (Chicago)
Many voters were frustrated in their attempts to track the progress of their mail ballots. One in three said they were unable to track their ballots. Roughly the same number said that by Election Day, they did not have confirmation that their ballots had been received.
“My husband and I dropped off our ballots at the same location and time. He received an email a week later notifying him that his ballot was received. I never received an email and the Cook County site still states that my ballot was ‘not returned.’ Very disappointing and frustrating.” (Berwyn)
“I felt more secure once I was able to confirm that my ballot had been received. It is important to be able to confirm prompt receipt by election officials.” (Chicago)
Despite the challenges, nearly three in four respondents said their confidence in mail voting increased or stayed the same based on their experience in this election. Overall, 43 percent were more confident, 27 percent were less confident, and 31 percent were unchanged.
Still, there was little support for election officials to mail ballots (or even ballot applications) automatically. Almost 40 percent said voters should request an application and return it to their election authority in order to receive a mail ballot. About 27 percent said eligible voters should automatically receive applications (as they did in the Nov. 3 election). Only 18 percent supported sending ballots to all eligible voters. (15 percent had no opinion.)
Thank you for telling us about your voting experience. Your input will help shape our recommendations for future elections.