How our Legislature this week can make elections safer and more democratic

The crowded conditions usually seen at polling places almost certainly will threaten the health of voters and election workers this fall. A bill in Springfield provides a fix.

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llinois State Rep. Debbie Meyers-Martin, D-Olympia Fields, stands with other representatives to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield, where the Illinois House of Representatives conducted its spring session Wednesday.

Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP

Illinois can take a big step this week toward ensuring smooth and pandemic-safe elections this fall, even as President Donald Trump tries to throw voting into chaos in two other states.

The Illinois Legislature should pass a bill, up for a hearing on Thursday, that would make it easier to vote in three different ways — by mail, early in person and on Election Day in person.

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On Wednesday, Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan and Nevada because officials there are working to expand access to mail-in ballots so as to reduce health risks to voters. Trump falsely accused the two states of sending “illegal” vote-by-mail ballots to every voter.

In truth, Michigan is sending applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters, not ballots themselves. And Nevada is sending absentee ballots to all registered voters.

Trump previously has made it clear he dreads an expansion of mail-in voting, convinced it would work against his reelection.

In Illinois, lawmakers should ignore Trump’s blatant attempt to exploit federal funding to tilt the Nov. 3 vote in his direction. Instead, they should do everything possible to make it easier for residents to vote without risking exposure to the coronavirus.

The heavy in-person voting we usually see at polling places almost certainly would pose a health threat this time around to both voters and election workers.

The bill pending in Springfield would do the following:

  • An application for a mail-in ballot would be sent to everyone who voted by mail or requested a mail-in ballot in the past three elections.
  • Early-voting hours would be extended in the 15 days before the election.
  • Election Day would be declared a state holiday, which means schools would be closed, making it easier for them to be used as polling places. School officials are reluctant to have voters and students in their buildings at the same time because of the pandemic. Janitors also would have more time to disinfect schools before students return.
  • A statewide website would be set up to allow citizens to request mail-in ballots. Chicago and Cook County already have such websites, but many counties don’t.

As the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said, “Our goal is to ensure the greatest possibility of access for citizens to be able to go and cast votes in November in the pandemic.”

Illinois already has a comparatively voter-friendly system of elections. Mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day are counted even if they arrive two week later. No witness signature is needed to vote by mail. And unlike with absentee ballots, no one has to provide an excuse for voting by mail, such as an illness.

Illinois can do even better to ensure full and fair elections this fall.

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