The mail is in the bill: Legislature moves to extend expanded mail voting to elections in April — and beyond

The bill allows local election authorities to set up permanent ballot drop-boxes for vote-by-mail ballots. It also mandates that those election authorities must accept a mailed ballot even if it has insufficient postage.

SHARE The mail is in the bill: Legislature moves to extend expanded mail voting to elections in April — and beyond
An early voter drops a general election mail-in ballot in the secured drop box at Warren Park in the West Rogers Park neighborhood last October.

An early voter drops a general election mail-in ballot in the secured drop box at Warren Park in the West Rogers Park neighborhood last October.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Suburban voters would be able to cast their ballots in next month’s local elections in the same manner they used last November under a bill the state Senate sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday, making last year’s expansions to the state’s vote-by-mail system permanent.

The bill allows local election authorities to set up permanent ballot drop-boxes for vote-by-mail ballots. It also mandates that those election authorities must accept a mailed ballot even if it has insufficient postage.

Due to the pandemic, the expansions were originally set up in anticipation of a surge in mail-in ballots in the 2020 vote. But the changes expired at the beginning of January.

That left many counties who wanted to use drop-boxes for municipal elections on April 6 in limbo, said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

“A lot of election jurisdictions that had used drop-boxes in the general election in November intended to use them again for April,” he said. “The language was no longer there to authorize [drop-boxes], but there was nothing in the existing election code that prohibited their use. So it was important that the election code be amended to have explicit permission to use drop-boxes.”

Voters can drop their completed mail-in ballots into the boxes, which are typically located at early-voting sites or other governmental facilities, rather than mail them in.

The mailbox in front of a United States Post Office station in West Woodlawn last September.

The mailbox in front of the United States Post Office Jackson Park Station in West Woodlawn last September.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

If Pritzker signs the bill, it would apply to all future elections.

Another change that would be made permanent is curbside voting, which allows voters to fill out ballots from their vehicles, instead of going inside the polling places.

According to Dietrich, curbside voting was used in 2020 primarily for voters who “tested positive for COVID-19 but still wanted a safe way to vote in-person.” Going forward the practice may be “geared toward disabled voters” in polling places that are less accessible.

“This is one more step to ensure people can safely exercise their right to vote,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Lake Forest. “I will continue to fight to make it easier for voters’ voices to be heard — especially at a time when so many are relying on their elected officials for help.”

State Sen. Julie A. Morrison in 2018.

State Sen. Julie A. Morrison in 2018.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, highlighted the broader fight for voting access across the country during floor debate.

“You look around the country today, and there are states that are trying to limit one’s ability to vote. Let’s take a look at Georgia, trying to limit drop-box access and are making it a crime to give food or drinks to those waiting in line to vote,” he said. “Coming off of COVID some people still just don’t feel comfortable voting. And that’s why we should focus on expanding one’s ability to vote and the security of that vote.”

After passing the Illinois House earlier this month along partisan lines, the measure faced considerably less opposition in the Senate, with only seven Republican senators voting it down on Thursday.

At a hearing the day before it passed, state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said that the bill could allow ballots to be collected in drop-boxes and counted after polls close on election night.

State Sen. Jason Barickman in 2017.

State Sen. Jason Barickman in 2017.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

“The legislation requires ballots collected after close of business day ‘be delivered the next day’. That particular phrase has caused some of us to question the intent of the bill,” Barickman said. “What happens if a ballot is dropped at a collection site after the close of polls on election day? Will it still be counted?”

But Thomas Bride, executive director of the Peoria County Board of Elections, said at the hearing these election changes went “smoothly” in 2020.

“On Election Day, we went right up till the close of polls at 7 p.m. At that point drop-boxes were locked, and any that were deposited before 7 p.m. were counted. It stopped the ability to leave [ballots] in the drop-box after 7 p.m.”

Countering claims that the drop-boxes were not secure, a state election board spokesman said there has been “no reports of any kind of tampering or any other type of security issue pertaining to drop-boxes used in Illinois’ 2020 election.”

An identical bill passed the Senate in January but the House was unable to vote on the measure before the Legislature’s session ended. Having now passed both chambers, the new bill will be sent to the governor.

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