Greising: Next on the COVID Hit List: Free and Fair Elections

It's time to start drawing up plans to broadly expand mail-in voting across Illinois.

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BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

The COVID-19 pandemic's disruption of our daily lives is starting to show real staying power. Ease of travel, nearly borderless trade, carefree gatherings in large groups and a bountiful job market seem like echoes from the past.

Heck, we can't go to the grocery store anymore without gearing up like a bank robber.

Next up on the COVID hit list: Our right to free and fair elections. Recent experiences with primary elections in Illinois, Wisconsin and elsewhere have shown the pandemic is a real threat to elections, too.

The Nov. 3 general election is just six months away. Elections as we have known them—with polling in school basements and senior-living homes—could be problematic, even impossible. A recent Pew Research Center survey found two-thirds of Americans expect the election to be disrupted by COVID-19, and 70 percent of those surveyed said people should be allowed to vote by mail.

This is one instance when the crowd has it right: It's time to start drawing up plans to broadly expand mail-in voting across Illinois.

Providing safe in-person voting needs to be part of the response, too. Not all voters can be reached by mail, and many prefer to cast a ballot in their neighborhoods on Election Day. Keeping large early voting centers open on Election Day and promoting the weeks-long early voting period could help reduce crowding at the precincts on Nov. 3.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recognizes the risks to November's election. But when he raised the prospect of greatly expanded vote by mail, Republicans in the Legislature questioned his thinking. Some accused him of seeking partisan advantage.

The Pew study indicates Republican officials who oppose mail-in voting may be out of step with their constituents. Half the respondents said all elections should be conducted by mail this fall. That was a jump of 18 percentage points since last fall, and self-identified Republicans accounted for the biggest share of the shift, Pew found.

Data from the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, which favors mail-in voting, indicates Republican fears about partisan advantage may be overblown. In a study of 2016 election data from seven battleground states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin—Brennan's researchers found voters 65 and older were the biggest users of mail-in ballots. Two-thirds were cast by white voters. Repeated political polling has shown that older, white voters skew Republican.

Illinois already offers "no excuses" absentee voting—meaning voters can request mail-in ballots, no need to tell why. The prudent next move is to encourage mail-in voting and reduce reliance and pressure on the polling places by sending a ballot to every registered voter.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Lake Forest, has begun to fill in details for how this might work. On her website, Morrison describes a plan to mail each registered voter a ballot to be filled out at home, then returned to the county election board and counted by Election Day. This approach would eliminate the cost of voters needing to request a ballot from their election board, and Morrison's focus on timely reporting of results is welcome.

Cost overall is a big unknown. One study estimates Michigan would need to spend $38 million to implement statewide at-home balloting, and Illinois' population is 30 percent larger than Michigan's. Illinois already is set to receive around $14 million from the federal government for election costs arising from COVID-19. More will be required from the feds, and Illinois will need to bear some of the cost of ensuring a safe and sound election.

Opponents argue mail-in ballots are subject to vote fraud. But election-law professor Richard Hasen of the University of California-Irvine has cited a study finding only 491 fraud charges arising from elections from 2000 to 2012, in which he estimates "billions of votes were cast."

Risks may grow as mail-in voting expands. Protections against the practice of "ballot harvesting" are needed, and improvements can be made to the use of signature matching to guard against identity fraud.

There is plenty to learn from other states—on security, systems, efficiency and turnout. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington already conduct most of their voting by mail. Another 16 states have provisions for at least some mail-in elections. With few exceptions, the systems have worked, turnout has been good and confidence in the results remains strong.

No one said this would be easy. But the COVID-19 threat to the fall election calls for a dramatic ramp-up of vote by mail in Illinois. Now is the time to answer that call.