Vote-by-mail expansion approved by Illinois Legislature

Bill also allows curbside voting, makes Election Day a state holiday this year

By BEN ORNER

Capitol News Illinois

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SPRINGFIELD – A major expansion of voting access for the 2020 general election is headed to the desk of Gov. JB Pritzker after the Illinois Senate overwhelmingly passed the measure Friday.

After more than an hour of floor debate, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 1863 by a 37-19 party-line vote. Three Democrats – Jacqueline Collins, of Chicago, Robert Martwick, of Chicago, and Pat McGuire, of Crest Hill – did not vote. The bill, which Pritzker has said he supports, expands mail-in voting for the Nov. 3 general election in anticipation of social distancing and other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that will make in-person voting more challenging.

The bill requires Illinois’ local election offices, by Aug. 1, to mail or email vote-by-mail ballot applications 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.

Bill 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 consist of boxes placed in locations at the discretion of local election officials.

As for voting in person, the bill would allow local election authorities to implement curbside voting, in which voters can drive up, be handed a ballot and fill it out in their cars.

SB 1863 would also expands the existing Election Day a state holiday for state employees to include public schools and universities, but only for the 2020 election.

The collection site and curbside provisions are optional for local clerks. They would also have the option to facilitate early-voting hours for people with certain health conditions.

Among the issues that Republican senators raised to state Sen. Julie Morrison D-Lake Forest, the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, were costs, input from county clerks, the security of collection sites and ballot applications being sent automatically and in some cases by email.

State Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, took issue with a provision that allows citizens as young as 16 to be election judges. Morrison said that is to make up for an expected decrease in elderly judges, many of whom did not show up during the March primary because of safety concerns.

“We lost a great number of experienced election judges who are retired and older people who quite simply have a great deal of hesitation now in performing those election duties that they’ve enjoyed for so many years,” Morrison said. She added it is also an “excellent way for us to engage the younger generation in our government.”

Schimpf also argued the bill creates a system with “significant” costs that are unnecessary given that Illinois already allows any citizen to vote by mail. He added it would also place a “significant burden” on local election authorities, whom he also argued have not been able to offer enough input.

The Illinois State Board of Elections filed a fiscal note saying that if the bill’s provisions are fully implemented by every local election authority, it would eat up every dollar of the more than $16.7 million the state will receive from the federal CARES Act for elections.

House sponsor Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, however, said during floor debate on Thursday that ISBE’s estimate is “extremely generous” because she does not expect every election office to implement every provision.

Voting on legislation has been different for the Senate during this week’s special session as lawmakers practice social distancing. Senators have had to come to the floor in groups of 10 to vote, a process that takes slightly longer.

Pritzker threw his support behind SB 1863 on Thursday, saying during his daily briefing that it balances voting access with available resources.

“I’m very much in favor of making sure that everybody gets a ballot who is eligible to vote and then returns that ballot,” he said.

The measure passed the House of Representatives 72-43 on Thursday evening after a nearly three-hour debate that featured Republicans grilling Burke. Multiple GOP representatives expressed their concerns over the collection box system, for example, which Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R-Kankakee, argued could lead to voter fraud.

“There’s not enough checks and balances, there’s not enough security, there’s not enough integrity to this ballot-harvesting drop-box system,” she said.

To address security concerns related to the optional collection sites, Senators passed House Bill 2238 on Friday before debating SB 1863. That trailer bill would, among other things, require collection boxes to be locked and opened only by election authorities. It also requires ISBE to establish additional guidelines.

The trailer bill will need to be passed by the House in order to go to the governor’s desk.

SB 1863 applies to only this November’s general election.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Senator from Edwardsville says bill enables widespread election fraud

State Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, spoke on the floor of the Illinois Senate opposing the vote-by-mail proposal, calling it a dangerous measure that creates numerous loopholes to be exploited.

Senate Bill 1863 is an election omnibus bill which expands the current vote-by-mail program in Illinois by mandating election authorities to send ballot applications to voters who took part in elections in the years 2018, 2019 and 2020.

“It is a shame that during this time of crisis, when there should be unity and people working together, the Senate Democrats have shamelessly passed the most extreme election law in the country,” said Plummer. “Our state government should accept the responsibility of adapting transparent and secure protocols for upholding our voter’s rights, not legalizing blatant election fraud.”

Plummer denounced the actions of Senate Democrats for using the COVID-19 to push a partisan agenda that raises numerous concerns “for anyone that cares about the integrity of our election process.”

He noted this new legislation allows votes to be generated from ballots with no signature, ballots with mismatched signatures, ballots that have been tampered with and even allows the potential for people to vote multiple times in one election. He also pointed out that many election authorities around the state that conduct our elections are opposed to the bill, were not consulted on the bill and have been threatened with punitive action if they object to any portions of the bill.

“I have been contacted by a number of election authorities in my district and from around the state, voicing their concerns about this bill,” he said. “Everybody wants robust elections. Everybody wants people to vote. But nobody should want corruption of our democratic process.”

Under Senate Bill 1863, a panel of three partisan election judges can conduct reviews of ballots submitted by mail. However, Plummer says the legislation increases the likelihood of abuse within this system and creates more loopholes for unethical actors to exploit.

“After weeks of calling for a return of lawmakers to the Capitol, and while people are hurting across the state, are we standing up to protect our healthcare providers, speaking out against a governor who threatens our law enforcement and small businesses or addressing the current financial crisis? No. What we’re doing is watching as one party uses this crisis as a cover to advance a shocking election law bill and push a partisan agenda when the citizens of our state are seeking unity and bipartisanship.”

Senate Bill 1863 passed the Senate by a vote of 37 to 19 on Friday.

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