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Suburban election clerks ask Illinois to prepare for record demand for vote-by-mail

McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio talks with attorney John Christensen (left) during an electoral board meeting for the Regional Office of Education on Jan. 14 at the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock.
McHenry County Clerk and Recorder Joe Tirio talks with attorney John Christensen (left) during an electoral board meeting for the Regional Office of Education on Jan. 14 at the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock.

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Suburban election clerks are preparing for what they expect to be the largest number of mail-in ballots ever requested for an Illinois election.

The three Democrats and two Republicans comprising the clerks in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties all signed a letter delivered to state lawmakers last week encouraging robust preparation for an unprecedented demand for mail-in ballots.

“We fully support the broader use of vote by mail to increase voter participation during every future election, regardless of whether there is a public health crisis,” according to the letter. “We want our voters to be safe and to have as many options to cast ballots as possible. We want to expand vote by mail so that citizens are never forced to choose between voting and their health. We want to expand vote by mail simply because it will increase voter participation and civic engagement.”

Fast-moving legislation to make those improvements now heads to Gov. JB Pritzker after the state Senate passed the measure by a party-line vote Friday. Pritzker has said he supports the bill.

Senate Bill 1863 requires Illinois’ local election offices to mail or email vote-by-mail ballot applications by Aug. 1 to any voter who cast a ballot in 2018, 2019 or 2020, as well as voters who registered or changed addresses after the March primary. Proponents estimate 4.8 million people will receive applications.

The bill also states that by Sept. 15, the secretary of state must send a notice to people who received an application but have not yet returned it.

Completed ballots would be returned via mail or in new “collection sites” that would be composed of boxes placed in locations at the discretion of local election officials.

Some lawmakers, such as state Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, are concerned expanded voting by mail also will expand voter fraud.

“Chicago is known for pizza, the Navy Pier, the ‘L’ and dead people voting,” Skillicorn said. “Making it easier for a state known for corruption to be even more corrupt does not seem like a good idea to me.”

But Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham, also a Republican, said concerns about fraud are “overblown.” Mail-in balloting has existed for a long time, and it uses the same voter signature checks that secure votes on regular polling place ballots.

Cunningham said there is more of a chance of human error causing an inaccurate ballot count than intentional fraud.

A three-person panel of judges reviews ballot signatures. All three judges must agree a signature is bad for a ballot to be tossed out. The voter who cast the allegedly bad ballot is then given a chance to restore the ballot’s integrity.

Cunningham said he expects the demand for mail-in ballots to increase by as much as 75% for the November election.

“The writing is on the wall,” he said. “This is about making sure we are ready for it.”

As written, the elements of the bill would sunset Jan. 1, 2021.

The Cook County Clerk’s Office did not sign the letter. Officials were not available for comment Friday.

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