Lessons From the November 2020 Election

More than 6 million Illinoisans voted, despite a deadly pandemic, thanks to emergency measures passed by the General Assembly. Now is the time to build on that success.

BGA file photo

The 2020 general election season began with a big push for Illinois voters to apply for mail ballots and ended with pleas to take those ballots to a drop box instead. 

In between, there was anxiety and uncertainty: Do I have to vote by mail? Is it safe to vote in person? Can I change my mind? Do I need a stamp? (Do I need two?) Can I count on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver by Election Day? Where is my ballot? Why isn’t it showing up on the online tracker? Will my vote be counted?

With the election finally in the books, here’s what we know:  Turnout was higher than in any presidential election since 1992. One of every three votes were cast via mail ballot, though many of those ballots were hand-delivered to drop boxes. Half of those who voted in person did so during the expanded early voting period. 

Yes, there were glitches, but there’s scant evidence that voters were disenfranchised as a result. Voters and election officials rose to the challenge of having a safe election during a pandemic.

Let’s not do it that way again, though. Let’s do it better.

An emergency election law, meant to avoid crowded precincts on Election Day, was passed and implemented in a hurry. The changes applied to the November 2020 election only. State lawmakers wanted to see how they worked before making any of them permanent.

Sen. Julie Morrison, chief sponsor of the emergency bill, already is meeting with stakeholders with an eye to passing a new bill this spring.

The Better Government Association also surveyed voters statewide about their election experience

Here’s our list of what to keep, what to lose and what to improve. 

Vote by mail. Illinois has allowed mail balloting — also known as no-excuse absentee voting — since 2010. This year, anyone who had voted in one of the last three elections automatically received an application to request a mail ballot instead of having to proactively obtain that application. 

Five states go farther, sending mail ballots, not just applications, to eligible voters. Illinois lawmakers don’t appear ready to go that far (and neither do the voters who answered our survey). The state could at least maintain a permanent list of voters who want mail ballots. It would save time at both ends: Voters wouldn’t have to request a ballot every time and election officials wouldn’t have to process so many requests.

The mail balloting timeline needs adjusting.  Even without this year’s USPS problems, allowing people to request a mail ballot five days before an election is a tight turnaround. 

Better ballot tracking, online or by email, will boost voter confidence. Some people panicked unnecessarily when their ballots fell off the radar. Many ballots that appeared “stuck” had reached their destination but hadn’t been scanned.

Better messaging would also help. Those pre-election letters from the Secretary of State, urging voters to request a ballot application long after many people had already done so, were a confusing waste of resources. Ditch that. Better to apply that money to the cost of providing postage-paid ballots statewide, instead of leaving it up to individual voting jurisdictions. Having a uniform ballot envelope also would reduce confusion.

Drop boxes. The emergency law allowed (but did not require) secure drop boxes. Voters loved them. Instead of mailing their ballots, they took them to an early voting site and jumped the line — like a Disney FastPass — to deposit them in the box. Drop boxes should be mandatory and plentiful, and they should be staffed by an election worker to ensure that the envelope is signed and filled out correctly.

Early voting. Early voting has been trending up steadily since it was introduced in 2006. This year there were more weekend days and later hours. The law also required each jurisdiction to have at least one super site, open to all voters on Election Day. 

The November election goes in the books as a rare 2020 success story. More than 6 million Illinoisans voted, despite a deadly pandemic, thanks to lawmakers and election officials who pulled off some big changes on the fly. Now is the time to build on that success. Keep the things that worked. Fix or eliminate the things that didn’t.

It’s become a cliche to say this was an election like no other. But future elections are likely to look a lot like this one, with voters embracing new options —  not because they have to, but because they want to. 

This column appeared in the State Journal-Register.

More from Policy