Bill to expand vote-by-mail heads to Illinois House floor

Bill to expand vote-by-mail heads to Illinois House floor

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Don Harmon

New Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, center, and others wear masks amid the coronavirus pandemic during session at the State Capitol on Wednesday. 

Illinois will send vote by mail applications to millions of voters this fall under a bill approved by the House Executive Committee Thursday.

In an 8-5 partisan vote, Senate Bill 1863 will also make election day this year a holiday for schools and university staff. Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, said that will allow schools to continue to be used as polling places without potentially exposing students to the COVID-19 virus.

The changes are being made to give voters a chance to participate in the Nov. 3 election without having to vote in person and potentially spread the coronavirus. The changes are for the 2020 general election only.

"There was a public health concern with robust participation in the elections," Burke said. "It is important we are doing everything we can to protect our residents and ensure they have access to voting."

All five Republican committee members voted against the proposal raising skepticism about the plan and whether there were sufficient safeguards to protect against voter fraud.

"Obviously, this is a huge change to election law," said Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield, "We have a very robust vote by mail system in Illinois. I think we have a great process in place now."

Currently, a person must request an application from local election authorities in order to vote by mail. Under the bill, anyone who voted in the 2018, 2019 or 2020 election will be automatically mailed an application to obtain a vote by mail ballot, including those who voted by mail in those elections. Burke said that would mean about five million voters.

The cost of the mailings is estimated at $2.7 million. Burke said federal funds provided to states to deal with the effects of the coronavirus should cover the cost. She said local election authorities will be reimbursed for their costs under the program.

"There is some extra cost, but in the scheme of trying to keep people healthy and vote in November, I think it is worth it," Burke said.

Making election day a holiday for schools will help prevent school children from potentially being exposed to the coronavirus, Burke said. Many polling places are located in school buildings.

General election day is already a holiday for state employees. Burke said the holiday does not extend to local government employees.

Republican lawmakers on the committee -- all of whom voted against the bill -- raised a number of concerns. Butler said he was concerned that ineligible voters could get ballots if local authorities haven't kept their voter lists up to date.

He also raised concerns about the security of drop boxes that local authorities have the option of using to allow people to drop off their ballots without mailing them. Burke said procedures are in place to ensure the boxes are secure. She also said it is optional for local authorities to use them.

Procedures are also in place to have election judges verify if the signature on a mail-in ballot matches the signature on file for the voter at the local election office.

The bill will now go to the House floor for approval. It must also be approved by the Senate this week during the General Assembly's planned, abbreviated session.

Gov. JB Pritzker has already called for an expanded vote by mail program this year because of the coronavirus and would be expected to sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk.


PHOTOS: Protesters rally in Springfield in Wednesday

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