SPRINGFIELD — Legislators spent much of Thursday debating an elections measure that would vastly expand vote-by-mail ahead of the November election — with the bulk of budget and COVID-19 legislation waiting in the wings during an unprecedented session conducted with an eye to pandemic precautions.
No mask face offs added any drama to Day Two of the special legislative session.
State Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, entered the Bank of Springfield Center wearing a face covering, just one day after he was booted from the chamber for showing up bare-faced.
And about a mile away at the Illinois State Capitol, state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, went a little further, donning a complete face shield for the second day in a row.
Unlike the day before, legislators spent their time Thursday arguing about policy rather than facial coverings.
The vote-by-mail expansion measure cleared the Illinois House 72-43 after nearly three hours of debate, as Republicans griped about numerous concerns, including voter fraud, the locations of drop-off boxes and even the integrity of election judges who can be as young as 16 — and face fewer requirements — under the new legislation.
The Illinois Senate planned to take up the measure Friday along with the state budget, adding to the usual last-minute cram session Illinoisans expect from Springfield.
In the House, the Democratic supermajority won its battle to expand mail ballots. And the victory is significant. While the legislation is intended strictly for the November election to aid voters during the pandemic, Democrats will seek to keep the initiative in place well beyond 2020.
In total, an estimated 5 million voters would be sent vote-by-mail applications by their local election authorities under the proposed legislation. The Illinois State Board of Elections was awarded $13.9 million in federal funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to cover additional election related costs due to the pandemic. The state is required to match 20% of that amount, or $2.78 million.
State Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged the election process “can be better and this pandemic has highlighted that need for it to be better.”
But she warned her legislation was needed to allow the state to be “prepared for the worst case scenario,” should there be a COVID-19 resurgence in the fall.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said his members aren’t opposed because they want to suppress the vote, and he pointed the finger at Democrats for using a crisis to their advantage.
“I’m going to go as far as to say that this legislation is nothing more than a partisan power play to create an advantage in November’s election, and the congressional races and also the state legislative races,” Durkin said.
Several Republicans voiced concerns over a provision that would allow local election authorities to assign bipartisan panels of three judges to examine and potentially disqualify ballots. Some argued that politics would come into play, with a judge perhaps arguing a ballot should be counted, when it shouldn’t be.
Other concerns focused on “secure drop-off boxes,” where voters can drop off their ballots, in addition to regular mailboxes. State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, questioned the lack of oversight of where the boxes would be located, which would be decided by local election authorities. The boxes must be emptied by the local election authority once a day, and it must be “secure,” according to Burke.
In other legislative action, the state Senate cleared a measure that would create death benefits for police officers or firefighters who die as a result of COVID-19 contracted on the job. That measure passed 50-4. The Senate also approved a cannabis measure that makes changes to the current law that legalized recreational marijuana, including changes to advertising restrictions, taxes, making it easier for medical cannabis dispensaries to move and giving more flexibility to state cannabis regulators.
With many cannabis dispensaries facing hiring backlogs as they wait for potential employees to pass background checks, the bill also will allow the new hires to begin work while the background check is being conducted.
Tina Sfondeles reported from Chicago, Neal Earley from Springfield