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In Illinois, Late-Arriving Mail-In Ballots Could Decide Close Contests

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A sign identifies the Brookens Administrative Center in Urbana as a polling place for early voting.

CHAMPAIGN — On Election Day 2020, there is lots of speculation on whether voters will know who they have chosen for president by Election Night, or if a final count will take longer. But for right now, let’s look at the possibility for delays in the results of other election contests, just in Illinois.

Election officials at both the local and state levels say voter turnout is much higher than normal in this election, spurred in part by the number of voting options available in Illinois.

“Yes, it does feel like we’re basically running three elections at one time,” said Macon County Clerk Josh Tanner. “Election Day, obviously; the early vote; and then vote by mail, all of which require election judges and staff to process.”

Tanner notes a big increase in mail-in ballots. Macon County’s previous record for mail-in ballots was just over 2,000 in the 2018 election. But this year, Tanner’s office had collected over 9,000 mail-in ballots as of Thursday, October 29.

Early voting was also up in Vermilion County (excluding Danville). On October 27, Vermilion County Clerk Cathy Jenkins reported 2,391 mail-in ballots returned (out of 3,444 sent out), which is almost three times the level seen in past elections. The number of early votes cast by October 27 was 2,799, which Jenkins said was at least double previous levels.

And in the city of Danville, Danville Election Commission director Sandy Delhaye reported that the 2,980 early voting ballots cast by October 29 had exceeded the 2,200 total early voting ballots cast in the 2016 election. Delhaye’s office has received 1,834 mail-in ballots as of October 29, out of 2,300 requested by voters.

The increase in voting this year was assisted by a new state law that expanded mail-in voting, in response to concerns that COVID-19 could spread at crowded polling places — or that the fear of such spread would keep many voters from coming out to cast their ballots.

Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons says mail-in voting is up in his county, too. He is predicting that 100,000 Champaign County voters will cast ballots in this election, compared to approximately 92,000 in 2016 and 88,000 in 2018. But he doesn’t think the higher turnout will make Illinois late in announcing its share of the presidential vote, partly because he doesn’t think it will be close.

“I don’t know of anything that would hold up the vote count for our contribution to the presidential election in the state of Illinois,” said Ammons, a Democrat. “I think it’s pretty clear that Illinois is going to be blue. So I don’t think that’s going to be a major factor.”

But, like a few other states, Illinois election officials will be receiving some ballots after the polls close. Those will be mail-in ballots that are postmarked by Election Day, November 3, but don’t reach local election authorities until later. Under Illinois law, election officials can continue to collect properly postmarked ballots for another two weeks, until they officially certify them on November 17. (The election count on Election Night is unofficial). Illinois counted late-arriving ballots in past elections, too. But Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich says this year, the number of mail-in ballots is much higher. 

“We are seeing a situation where were could possibly see a significant portion of the vote coming in after Election Day,” said Dietrich. “And we could see fairly significant changes in those election night numbers.”

That means in some very close contests, the election result might look one way on the night of November 3, but a different way when those late-arriving ballots are tallied when votes are certified by local election authorities on November 17.  (Another official tally, this one by the state Election Board, happens on December 4). Dietrich says the additional mail-in ballots this could affect the result of the referendum on the graduated income tax amendment. If the Election Night tally was close, the late-arriving ballots could make a difference, especially as the amendment can be approved by two different criteria. The Illinois constitution says amendments may be approved by three-fifths of all voters who vote on the question, or by a simple majority of all ballots cast in the election, whether they contain a vote on the amendment or not. 

“I’m sure we’re going to hear from the proponents and the opponents,” said Dietrich, of the amendment vote. “We’re going to hear plenty because they can do a lot of analysis as the votes come in.”

Late-arriving mail-in ballots actually shifted the outcome of an election two years ago in Macon County. On Election Night, the Republican candidate for sheriff, Jim Root, seemed to be the winner by 99 votes. But two weeks later, provisional and late-arriving mail-in ballots put Democrat Tony Brown in office by a one vote margin. A ballot recount was conducted earlier this year, but its effect on the election still awaits a judge’s ruling.

Josh Tanner, the Macon County Clerk, says if you have a mail-in ballot you haven’t mailed yet on November 3, you can avoid adding to the problem, by taking it to his office without delay”. (For readers outside Macon County, take your mail-in ballot to the local election office in your county or jurisdiction).

“And at this point in time, we’re encouraging people to hand deliver it, which is an option,” said Tanner. “They can hand deliver it to my office. Or they can authorize another person to hand deliver it. That just gets it in here faster, gets it into the ballot box. And it’s one less thing that the voter has to worry about.”

In Champaign County, you can also drop your mail-in ballot in one of the seven election drop boxes around Champaign-Urbana. Those ballots will be collected for tabulation when the polls close at seven p.m. November 3.

However they’re delivered, local election officials says they are committed to making every vote count, even if the final tabulation is not finished on Election Night.

Follow Jim Meadows on Twitter: @WILLJim Meadows

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Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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