Early to vote, early to results? Weighing in sooner could avoid snail mail dragging out wins, losses, officials say

It’s “conceivable” that the state could see “five times the number of mail ballots that we saw in 2018,” a non-presidential election year that was the highest total at the time, officials said.

SHARE Early to vote, early to results? Weighing in sooner could avoid snail mail dragging out wins, losses, officials say
Hundreds of people stand in line and early vote at the Loop Super Site, Thursday morning, in Chicago.

Hundreds of people stand in line and early vote at the Loop Super Site, Thursday morning, in Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago is voting early and cautious.

On the first day of early voting in the city this week, nearly three times as many voters came out as compared to the 2016 presidential election.

And nearly four times as many Chicagoans are potentially planning to vote by mail compared to four years ago — and to November 1944, when World War II raged on.

As of Thursday morning, 458,579 city residents requested vote-by-mail ballots, city election officials said. That’s more than the total populations of Naperville, Joliet and Rockford combined.

Statewide, the number of applications for mail ballots is just shy of 2 million, at 1,998,624 requests. Figures released earlier this week, which showed the state’s total requests at a little over 2 million, were the result of a “data error,” said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the state’s board of elections.

Still, given those numbers it’s “conceivable” that the state could see “five times the number of mail ballots that we saw in 2018,” a non-presidential election year that was the highest total at the time, Dietrich said.

“If you go back — the last 40 years of presidential elections, from 1976 through 2016, the average turnout has been 73% statewide,” Dietrich said.

Hundreds of people wait in line to early vote at the Loop Super Site on Oct. 1, 2020.

Hundreds of people wait in line to early vote at the Loop Super Site, Thursday morning in Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“What that means is we can reasonably expect ... if we have turnout that’s consistent with other recent presidential years, we can reasonably expect 6 million ballots to be cast,” Dietrich said. “The way things stand now, if we do end up getting, say 2 million people who vote by mail, you’re looking at, potentially, one-third of the vote being cast by mail. That is a much higher percentage than we’ve ever had before. The most we’ve ever had as a percentage has been just over 9% — And that was two years ago.”

So far, 85,951 of those mail ballots have been returned this year from voters across the state, officials said. And apart from that, 82,112 Illinois voters have already shown up at early voting sites that opened late last month.

In Chicago, 1,486 voters showed up on the city’s first day of early voting on Thursday, creating a line so long it trailed down the sidewalk outside of the Loop Super Site at 191 N. Clark St.

COVID-19 concerns are driving voters to do all they can to avoid crowded Election Day polling places, with some voting early and others choosing the mailbox over the ballot box.

The city dropped about 245,000 ballots in the mail last Thursday, the start date for election authorities around the state to begin sending out ballots to those who requested them.

Voters can still change their minds and vote in person.

Should they receive a vote-by-mail ballot and decide not to use it, the voter can bring it with to an early voting or Election Day site and surrender it to officials in exchange for a regular ballot.

Dietrich said the biggest question is how many mail ballots will be returned before Election Day for processing. The number of ballots submitted before Nov. 3 will allow election officials to know how many mail ballots are still out.

Submitting ballots early will allow election authorities to process them ahead of time and, on Election Day, “flip a switch” to have early voting and processed mail ballots figured into election night totals.

“The more of those that they process before Election Day, the more, when they flip that switch at 7 p.m. on Nov. 3, we will then have a count of that many vote-by-mail ballots,” Dietrich said. “But let’s flip it the other way, 1.5, million ballots are still outstanding as Election Day arrives. ... That’s the issue — how much are the numbers going to change after Election Day as the mail ballots come in and continue to be processed?”

How early voters vote will prove the key.

“It is totally dependent on voter behavior,” Dietrich said.

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