With COVID-19 Looming, Illinois Must Act Now to Ensure A Robust, Safe and Fair November Election

To maximize participation, the state should mail a ballot to every registered voter. At the same time, it will be critical to preserve and protect in-person voting options.

Justin German/BGA

This year’s primary election season will go down in history as the time American voters braved the threat of a deadly virus in order to cast their ballots. 

Amid rising calls for the public to stay home and avoid crowds to stem the coronavirus outbreak, some states chose to delay their elections while others forged ahead. Fear, anger and confusion reigned, regardless of the decision. With November fast approaching, this much is clear: We must rethink our democracy’s reliance on in-person Election Day voting.

Illinois dealt with widespread confusion on its March 17 Election Day, from poorly communicated last-minute polling location changes to a shortage of poll workers and cleaning supplies. These inefficiencies created long lines and big crowds, heightening the risks for poll workers and voters alike.

In a March 30 poll, roughly two in three U.S. adults said they were uncomfortable with the idea of voting in person. Yet voters in Wisconsin were forced to stand in line for hours to vote on April 7, after Gov. Tony Evers’ last-minute order to delay the election was blocked by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. At least seven cases of coronavirus in the state have now been linked to Election Day.

Wisconsin’s experience makes it clear that last-minute changes can disenfranchise voters and put the public at risk. It’s impossible to rule out a lingering COVID-19 or a resurgent second wave, so it’s urgent that we prepare for November’s consequential election like the emergency that it is. Illinois will need to do more to ensure the safety of in-person voting, to promote alternative voting options and to prepare election authorities for increased demand for such alternatives.

So what’s right for Illinois moving forward?

Expanding and fortifying the state’s existing vote-by-mail system is the most credible tool we have to prepare for November. Voting by mail allows electors to vote from the safety of their homes and provides a longer window in which to do so, which mitigates the possibility of last-minute problems. Voter preference already seems to be trending toward more voting by mail: Since Illinois introduced “no excuse” absentee balloting in 2010, more and more voters have chosen to vote by mail. In fact, absentee votes and early voting seem to be the reason this spring’s voter turnout wasn’t entirely tanked by coronavirus anxiety.

Illinois can’t — and shouldn’t — attempt a total shift to a vote-by-mail system by November. It’s unrealistic to task legislators and state and local election boards with such a transition in such a short period of time, given everything else the legislature has to deal with once lawmakers are able to reconvene. It took Oregon years to adopt a fully vote-by-mail system in 2000. Since then, four states have followed suit (Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, Washington). Even so, Illinois is in a relatively good position to expand its vote-by-mail system by November. Illinois already allows electors to request an absentee ballot without requiring an excuse. Illinois also does not require a notary or witness’ signature on the ballot return envelope, which represents an added layer of complexity that may disenfranchise voters who live alone.

Expanding vote by mail presents some challenges. There’s a tremendous amount of work that must be done to ensure that it won’t disenfranchise a significant portion of the electorate. Voting by mail may pose more difficulties for people with disabilities or people for whom English is not their preferred language, groups that typically have access to assistance at their polling place. Voting by mail also will be more difficult for those who don't have a stable address, a population that is disproportionately African American.

On a practical level, expanding vote by mail would be considerably more costly and labor-intensive for the clerks who administer elections. There will be more work in verifying mailing addresses and signatures, processing return ballots, and voter education. 

There also undoubtedly will be electors who prefer to vote in person. Some voters feel a great sense of community and civic pride in being able to vote at their local polling place, while others simply don’t trust that their ballots will be received in a timely fashion (or at all) through mail. 

We won’t find a silver bullet by November, but having learned from the March primaries, we can take steps to maximize voter participation in November. Here are steps Illinois should take to ensure a fair and safe election:

1. Every registered voter should receive a ballot in the mail.

This is the most efficient way to get ballots into the hands of likely voters, whether or not they intend to vote by mail. It preserves the option to vote in the event that in-person voting becomes too difficult or dangerous because of public health concerns. Sending registered voters applications instead of ballots adds another layer of administrative processing, not to mention the added expense of another round of mailing and another round of postage — money that is better spent processing ballots instead of applications. This effort should also be accompanied by a concerted voter education campaign to increase voting by mail, with accessibility and language considerations in mind, and to encourage early voting. 

2. Strengthen the existing vote-by-mail system by fortifying the ballot return process.

For Illinois, this means guaranteeing pre-paid postage for ballot returns and establishing designated drop sites/dropboxes. Including pre-paid envelopes increases the level of convenience for voters — it neutralizes any inability to pay for postage or get to a post office to purchase postage. In addition to being able to return completed ballots by mail or in person at a polling location, voters should have access to 24-hour dropboxes. Dropboxes should be secure, and located in community-based locations that are accessible for voters with disabilities and close to public transportation.

3. Promote early voting. 

A longer voting window guards against unforeseen Election Day calamities and relieves the pressure on poll workers in the event of staffing shortages. Spreading the voting period over several weeks also makes it easier to practice social distancing when casting a ballot in person.

4. Keep early voting super-centers open on Election Day in case some precinct locations need to be closed. 

This Plan B should be publicized well in advance, and notice should be posted at all polling places on Election Day.

5. Decrease reliance on retirees as election judges.

A majority of election judges and volunteer poll workers are seniors who are more susceptible to coronavirus infection. Relaxing election judge requirements for November may help attract more younger poll workers. For example, election judges are required to work from the time the polls open to the time they close. This precludes working adults who may be able to work half-day shifts. Election judges are also required to serve in all elections during a two-year term. This requirement could prevent high school or college students who may be moving between home and school from applying.

6. Move polling places out of schools and senior centers.

Supplement public voting locations (such as libraries, community centers and government buildings) with private ones, including malls, unused vacant commercial spaces, churches and corporate office centers. The state should also consider expanding capacity for curbside voting, which is already available by request for voters with disabilities.

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These measures are not intended to be permanent, but they are tangible and actionable steps Illinois can take to maximize participation in November's election while prioritizing the health and safety of voters. The impact of these measures should be scrutinized thoroughly after the election. By applying the lessons compelled by COVID-19, Illinois can move toward safer, more efficient and more equitable elections, with or without an emergency.