Brown: Clear up early voting confusion before it’s too late

SHARE Brown: Clear up early voting confusion before it’s too late
SHARE Brown: Clear up early voting confusion before it’s too late

What we used to call Election Day in Illinois has stretched into Election Month — a 30-day slog from the start of early voting to the counting of the last ballot.

That’s nothing.

Under a new law scheduled to take effect next year, Chicago election administrators believe Illinois elections would be extended into nearly a two-month affair.

That’s not so, counters Cook County Clerk David Orr, who helped push for the new law as part of a continued effort to make voting easier for citizens who are increasingly less interested in being bothered with it at all.

Orr says city election officials are misinterpreting the measure, which is much broader in scope. Among other things, it will allow voters to register at their polling place on the day of an election.

OPINION

In dispute is an apparently overlooked provision in the legislation that seems to quite clearly set the beginning of the period for early voting at 40 days before an election instead of the current 15 days.

That would mean that for next year’s March 15 presidential primary in Illinois, voters would be allowed to begin early voting on Feb. 3.

While most everybody in the election business these days is interested in doing what they can to get more people to vote, administrators with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners are concerned that’s just too early.

Among the concerns are that it would place too much stress on public agencies that make their facilities available for early voting and that voters rarely make up their minds about how to vote that far in advance, said Jim Allen, spokesmen for the city election board.

Plus, there are no mulligans for voters who cast their ballots early for a candidate who later drops out of the race, as is commonplace during the presidential primary season.

“We want to make it convenient. We have to find that balance,” Allen said.

Orr said his election counterparts at the city are just plain wrong. Early voting will remain at 15 days, not 40, he said.

“That’s not going to happen,” Orr said. “That’s not the intent.”

In hopes of getting clarification, I spoke to Kenneth Menzel, general counsel to the State Board of Elections.

Menzel agreed with Orr that there was no intent to lengthen the early voting period, although he seemed to recognize that’s not clear from the way the law was written.

Here’s the passage causing the problem:

“The period for early voting by personal appearance begins the 40th day preceding a general primary, consolidated primary, consolidated, or general election and extends through the end of the day before election day.”

Menzel said that was intended only to allow voters to visit the central office of an election authority such as the Board of Election Commissioners or the County Clerk to vote in person. That will indeed start 40 days before the election “if the ballots are ready,” Menzel said.

Menzel said that was already allowed under absentee voting, although the city board disagrees.

Menzel said an accompanying paragraph sought to clarify that early voting at a “permanent polling place” starts 15 days before the election.

City Elections Board Chairman Langdon Neal said his agency is hoping for formal guidance from the state board.

The new law eliminates the concept of absentee voting, which in the future will simply be considered a form of early voting, in this case voting by mail.

Another wrinkle is that those voting by mail will have until Election Day to get their ballots postmarked instead of the day before the election.

One side effect will be more ballots arriving days after an election — leaving the outcome of close contests in doubt that much longer and raising suspicions of skulduggery.

More than a third of Chicago voters cast an early ballot — by mail or in person — for the April 7 runoff election, proving its increasing popularity. Early voting began on March 23, and the counting wasn’t finished until Tuesday.

That’s long enough for me.

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