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To Curb COVID-19 Spread, Vote-By-Mail To Play A Bigger Role In Illinois Voting

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Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons, seen outside his office in the Brookens Administrative Center in Urbana, is a strong supporter of voting by mail.

As of last August 28, election officials in Illinois had received more than a million applications for vote-by-mail ballots for the November 3rd election. The high number was hoped for, as a new state law expands the use of mail voting as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Illinois State Board of Elections says the high number of returned applications puts the state on track to surpass the previous record set for voting by mail. In 2018, 430,000 ballots (9.3% of the total) were mailed to election authorities.

Not everyone favors vote-by-mail, but Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons does. On August 22, Ammons held a news conference outside the Mattis Avenue Post Office in Champaign, to show his support for the U.S. Postal Service and for vote-by-mail. The event was held on the day that the U.S. House voted to approve emergency funding for the Postal Service. However, the measure is expected to stall in the Senate, and the Trump administration also opposes it.

Ammons was joined by supporters including his wife, State Representative Carol Ammons, State Senator Scott Bennett and Champaign Mayor Deb Frank Feinen. Feinen, who was elected mayor on a non-partisan basis, is a Republican, but said she could not vouch for what other Republicans think of vote-by-mail.

One Republican known for opposing vote-by-mail is President Donald Trump, who condemned the House Postal Service bill as a politically-inspired hoax on the part of Democrats in his Twitter feed on the 22nd. In his prepared remarks, Ammons criticized the president for blocking Postal Service funding.

“It’s a betrayal of the Citizens of this country for (the president to withhold funding) knowing that the American people are depending on the Postal Service to cast their ballots in the November election” said Ammons. “Soldiers have been voting by mail since the Civil War. And hundreds of millions of Americans have voted by mail over the last 20 years, including the president.”

The president is not the only Republican opposed to widespread use of voting by mail instead of at a polling place. The Republican Party in Cook County filed a lawsuit in early August, trying to block the new state law that expands vote-by-mail. The lawsuit argues that offering mail-in ballots to voters on a wide scale opens the door for voter fraud.

But Vermilion County’s Republican County Clerk, Kathy Jenkins doesn’t think the problems feared by Cook County Republicans are much of a threat in east-central Illinois. She says vote by mail is already a common practice in Illinois, and it’s been years since you had to have an excuse to use it.

“That has all kind of changed,” said Jenkins. “And it’s really just basically now for convenience of the voter. I mean we, throughout the state, have made it pretty simple for people to vote. And if they don’t want to take the curlers out of their hair and stay home, we will mail them a ballot if they ask for it.”

(Link to Vermilion County Clerk voter information page here).

(Link to Danville Election Commission website here).

Some states that use vote-by-mail as the main method of voting, send out ballots to every voter. In Illinois, where vote-by-mail is just an option, voters must apply for a mail-in ballot. That practice is why Republican Congressman Rodney Davis (13th Dis.-Taylorville) says he’s comfortable with vote-by-mail, as practiced in Illinois. Davis, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the U.S. Postal Service, says other states that send out what he calls “live ballots” can run into problems.

“In the case of my colleague, Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia), who serves on the House Administration Committee with me, his staffer in the Washington DC area got three live ballots sent to three different names at his address,” said Davis, who cast one of a small group of Republican votes in favor of the Postal Service aid bill. “That is something that’s ripe for fraud. Rest assured, that is not Illinois’ process.”

Under the vote-by-mail expansion law, local election authorities have sent out ballot applications to most registered voters, but voters can also apply online. (Champaign County voters can apply for a mail ballot at this link). Starting September 24th, the same day that early voting begins, election authorities will mail personal election ballots to each voter who applied for them. They can then be filled out and mailed back in a special envelope, to be stored by election authorities until they’re counted after the polls close on Election Day.

Some Illinois counties will set up special election drop-boxes, emptied daily by election workers, for voters wary of mailing their ballots. The drop-boxes will not be used in Vermilion County, or in the city of Danville, which has its own election commission. But at his post office news conference, county clerk Ammons said you’ll be seeing those drop-boxes in Champaign County.

“These 24-hour drop-boxes are beloved in all the states and counties who use them,” said Ammons. “In Colorado, for instance, where 95 percent of the people vote by mail, 65 percent of them return their ballots by using one of the conveniently located drop-boxes.”

Champaign County Board GOP Caucus Leader Jim Goss says he doesn’t know if many Republicans will be voting by mail. But he notes that the drop-box locations are all in Champaign-Urbana — with none in more Republican-leaning areas of the county.

“I don’t think it adequately takes care of the rural part of the county,” said Goss.” But I don’t know what kind of numbers are going to come out of vote-by-mail in the rural part of the county. Most of those folks tend to like to vote Election Day.”

Since Republicans voices their complaint, Ammons has added more drop-box locations.  While all are in Champaign-Urbana, they now include one at the Sholem Aquatic Center in Republican-leaning southwest Champaign. Ammons also plans to bring what he calls mobile drop-boxes to other towns in Champaign County, like Mahomet, St. Joseph and Rantoul, on Saturdays in October.

Despite assurances from election officials, an election expert at the University of Illinois says vote-by-mail carries some small inherent risks, from ballots lost in the mail to drop-box tampering.

University of Illinois professor Brian Gaines says some vote-by-mail ballots are bound to get lost in transit. And he says some voters casting their ballots from home will be more likely to make mistakes that invalidate their ballot.

“On the whole, the ballots that are mishandled and go missing somehow or another, there’s not very many,” said Gaines. “But, by one estimate, you’re twice as likely to have that happen if you’re voting remotely, by mail or absentee. Again, it’s a very small probability, but most experts would agree there are more errors made when they’re voting remotely.”

Still, Gaines says he thinks those risks are acceptable, to avoid a bigger risk: the greater spread of COVID-19.

“And I think this is a perfect case where it makes sense for officials to be pushing vote-by-mail,” said Gaines, “even with the concerns that I have, which are very legitimate about vote-by-mail being a little less secure, a little more prone to coercion, a little bit more prone to fraud and leaving voters in somewhat more doubt about whether their ballots are counted correctly.”

But polling places will be still be open for in-person voting on November 3rd and during the early voting period. Election officials in Champaign County, Danville and Vermilion County say their polling places will be fortified with hand sanitizer, social distancing, plexiglass shields and the wearing of face masks.

COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. We recommend checking the Coronavirus Information Center for the most recent numbers and guidance.

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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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