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The choices are in the mail? Nearly a quarter of a million ballots to start hitting Chicago mailboxes

Statewide, nearly 1.8 million people have requested to vote by mail as of Tuesday, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections. Given the state’s numbers, it’s likely that a third of the vote will be cast by mail. In the 2016 presidential election, less than 7% of the 5,666,118 ballots came through the mail.

Mailboxes sit outside of a New Jersey post office in August.
Mailboxes sit outside of a New Jersey post office in August.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images file

City election officials plan to drop about 245,000 ballots in the mail Thursday, the launch day of an unprecedented effort to give voters the tools to decide the November election from the safety of their own homes.

As of Tuesday morning, 406,857 Chicagoans have applied to vote by mail, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners said. Thursday is the first day that election authorities can begin to mail out ballots to those who have requested them over the summer.

“We are working long hours seven days a week to ensure a safe and secure election in these final weeks leading up to Nov. 3,” Board Chairwoman Marisel Hernandez said in a statement. “We are encouraging people to plan their vote — whether Voting By Mail, using the US mail to return it, or at an Early Voting Secured Drop Box — or whether using Early Voting — well ahead of Election Day.”

Hernandez is advising those who vote by mail to return their ballots by Oct. 14.

Mailing out the ballots is one piece of the city’s early voting apparatus. The city’s super site, at 191 N. Clark St., opens to early voters on Oct. 1. And on Oct. 14, early voting begins in the city’s 50 wards.

In this July 7, 2020, file photo a woman drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop box in New Jersey.
In this July 7, 2020, file photo a woman drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop box in New Jersey.
AP file photo

Concerns about crowded polling places in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic are fueling voters to look for safer options.

Statewide, nearly 1.8 million people have requested to vote by mail as of Tuesday, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections. Given the state’s numbers, it’s likely that a third of the vote will be cast by mail, Dietrich said.

In the 2016 presidential election, less than 7% of the 5,666,118 ballots actually completed came through the mail.

Preparing for the upcoming general election has “presented challenges that no one has ever seen before — and that goes beyond the election system,” Dietrich said.

The state’s election authority, as well as others, has had to come up with contingency plans, including cybersecurity concerns, how to handle an outbreak in a local election authority’s office and what to do if election judges don’t show up at polling places.

Voting begins at a 1st Ward polling place on March 17.
Voting begins at a 1st Ward polling place on March 17.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The state’s election board is attempting to help municipal election agencies plan for the second election during the pandemic.

Local election boards can offer incentive pay to their poll workers and the state will reimburse the municipality through federal dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

“We’re trying to plan as best we can, but you’re also trying to plan, in a lot of cases, for the unknown,” Dietrich said. “We’re trying to foresee situations that are unprecedented. For the Super Bowl, you basically know what the components of the Super Bowl are ... but to an extent, it’s really difficult to do that in a pandemic, because you just don’t know how people are going to react.”

The push to vote by mail — and the large number of applications municipal election agencies are receiving — stems from a temporary expansion of the state’s mail-in ballot program that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law this summer.

For voters who do choose to cast their ballots in person, the Illinois Department of Public Health issued safety guidelines. Polling booths and election officials must be stationed at least six feet apart.

Polling places are also encouraged to keep a supply of face coverings for voters who arrive without one, although election authorities are prohibited from stopping a noncompliant voter from casting their ballot for refusing to wear a mask. Frequently touched surfaces should be “routinely” cleaned and disinfected, the guidelines say.

Dietrich said the board is trying to “mitigate the potential congestion” at early voting sites and polling locations, something he thinks the board has succeeded in though there’s no clear way to tell “how it’s going to break down.”

“We’re trying to encourage people to think about voting, not just voting early, but vote very early, it starts this week and we know from past elections that most of the early voting happens in those few days immediately ahead of the election,” Dietrich said.

“Early voting sites can get congested as well [and] we’d rather not have that happen. So we’re trying to encourage voters to get out and vote as early as possible, if you don’t want to vote by mail, but we also don’t want to scare people away from exercising their right to vote.”