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Election judges process and count March 19 primary election mail-in ballots for the Chicago Board of Elections at the Cook County Administration Building in the Loop, Friday, March 22, 2024.

Election judges process and count March 19 primary election mail-in ballots for the Chicago Board of Elections at the Cook County Administration Building in the Loop.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Illinois Republicans grapple with mail voting amid mixed signals from Trump — 'We have to adapt'

A greater share of Chicago area Republicans cast their ballots by mail in March compared to the 2022 primary, but they were still vastly outpaced by Democrats in using a voting system that has become increasingly popular.

While rallying his political troops last summer in Springfield heading into the primary campaign season, Illinois Republican Party chairman Don Tracy highlighted some of his top priorities to help the party regain a foothold in the Democratic-dominated state.

“We’ve got to embrace early voting and voting by mail,” Tracy said at the Illinois Republican Party State Central Committee & County Chairmen’s Association breakfast in August. “Democrats have won too many close elections on the strength of their vote-by-mail programs.”

Tracy said such vote-banking “needs to be the focus of every campaign in every county and township throughout the state” — no small order for a party led by former President Donald Trump, who has routinely sown mistrust for mail-in voting since he lost his 2020 reelection bid.

Eight months later, results from the March primary show a greater share of Chicago-area Republicans cast their ballots by mail compared to the 2022 primary, but they were still vastly outpaced by Democrats in utilizing a voting system that has become increasingly popular since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The GOP made up significant mail-in ground in Chicago, where 23% of Republican ballots were cast by mail, up from less than 15% in 2022, election data shows. About 29% of Democratic ballots in the city were mailed, only a slight bump up from 27% in the previous primary cycle.

But counting the nine counties of northeast Illinois as a whole, Democrats were still almost twice as likely to vote by mail compared to Republicans. That’s according to data compiled by the Chicago Sun-Times, which crunched the numbers as part of the Democracy Solutions Project, a series in partnership with WBEZ and the University of Chicago examining the challenges facing our democracy.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy speaks a Republican Day rally at the Illinois State Fair in August 2023.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy speaks a Republican Day rally at the Illinois State Fair in August 2023.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

About 17% of Republican ballots were mailed in across the region, well shy of the 29% of Democratic ballots that were postmarked, the Sun-Times found.

The figures underscore the challenge for Illinois Republicans heading into a pivotal presidential election with a candidate at the top of the ticket who in recent months has changed his tune on mail-in voting, but still sporadically slams the system, without evidence, as ripe for fraud.

No matter Trump’s mixed messaging, “our main priority is early voting,” Tracy said as the general election approaches. “We have to adapt.”

Analysis bug

Analysis

‘Where elections are won and lost’

The state GOP chairman has downplayed the possibility of Trump’s unfounded fraud claims discouraging Illinois voters from signing up for mail ballots, noting that Trump has embraced it as he tries to retake the Oval Office from President Joe Biden.

“ABSENTEE VOTING, EARLY VOTING, AND ELECTION DAY VOTING ARE ALL GOOD OPTIONS,” Trump wrote in a social media post last week. “REPUBLICANS MUST MAKE A PLAN, REGISTER, AND VOTE!”

On the biggest stages, though, Trump has regularly fallen back on the myths of rampant voter fraud that he’s claimed denied him a second term.

“Mail-in voting has to be totally corrupt. Get that through your head,” Trump said at a Michigan rally in February. “I mean, it has to be.”

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Waterford Township, Mich., Feb. 17, 2024.

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Waterford Township, Michigan Feb. 17.

Paul Sancya/AP Photos

The FBI and other authorities have confirmed there was no widespread mail voter fraud or any other interference in the 2020 election.

While Tracy and other establishment Illinois Republicans have kept Trump’s lies about election fraud at arm’s length, they have suggested Democrats who hold all statewide offices and supermajorities in the General Assembly aren’t committed to preventing ballot-box shenanigans.

“We want to make it easy to vote but hard to cheat. Democrats want it to be easy no matter what. They loosen voter integrity rules every chance they get,” Tracy said, pointing to Democratic rejection of voter ID requirements.

Republican leaders have also argued state laws that have expanded mail voting eligibility since 2020 “remove important election safeguards” — but they agree their opponents across the aisle have left them in the dust when it comes to voter registration and mail ballot sign-up efforts.

“Look at the model of what Democrats have done over the years,” said former Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Republican from Western Springs who stepped down last year. “They have been incredibly successful at registering and mobilizing voters.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Republicans up 3 to 4 points on Election Day, and everyone is thrilled until — ‘whoa, whoa, there are still mail ballots out.’ Then there’s a flip, and we continue to be on the losing side,” said Durkin, a vocal opponent of Trump.

“It took Republicans a while to see this is where elections are won and lost,” he said. “It’s here to stay. It’s in every state, whether you like it or not, and you have to deal with it.”

Former Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, pictured at his Loop office in November 2022.

Former Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, pictured at his Loop office in November 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mail-in voting strong in and around Chicago

More than 378,000 Illinois mail ballots were counted in the March 19 primary, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The Sun-Times found about two-thirds of those came from the counties including and around Chicago: Cook, Will, Lake, DuPage, McHenry, Kane, Kendall, Kankakee and Grundy.

Chicago led the way with almost 109,000 mail ballots cast, or about 28% of the city turnout.

Most of those — about 98,000 — were Democratic ballots, accounting for nearly 29% of all Democratic votes. The 9,536 Chicago Republican mail ballots accounted for 23% of all GOP votes in the city.

In suburban Cook County, about 23% of Democratic ballots came by mail, while just 15% of Republicans did.

Lake County saw the highest vote-by-mail participation rate with one out of every three north suburban ballots mailed in. That includes a whopping 42% of Democratic ballots, compared to 22% of Republican ones.

GOP mail voting bottomed out in Kankakee County, where 11% of all ballots were postmarked, including less than 7% of Republican ones.

In all counties except Cook, Republican mail-in rates trailed Democratic ones by 10 percentage points or more.

And in seven counties, Democratic mail-in rates were more than twice as high as their Republican neighbors.

‘Two-faced problem’

The numbers reflect Republicans’ tortured relationship with voting by mail, which, for their opponents, has been “an incredibly important tool for us to engage more voters,” according to Ben Hardin, executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

“Republicans are spouting totally misplaced or manufactured concerns. There’s no cheating in filling out a ballot at home, sticking it in a USPS box and then having it counted,” Hardin said. “It is going to be their downfall this cycle.”

He pointed to the contrasting efforts of the Illinois Republican Party to encourage mail balloting, while a federal lawsuit filed by a top Illinois GOP congressman aims to scale back the state’s vote-by-mail law.

Downstate U.S. Rep. Mike Bost and a pair of Chicago area Republicans have argued Illinois’ law, which allows mail ballots to be counted as they arrive to election authorities for up to two weeks after Election Day, dilutes the value of their votes through “illegal ballots.”

“They have a two-faced problem that they need to figure out,” Hardin said.

But mistrust of the system is rampant and growing among Republicans nationwide, surveys suggest.

A Pew Research poll conducted in January found just 28% of Republicans think any voter should be allowed to cast a ballot by mail, down from 49% who agreed with that sentiment in a poll taken four years earlier.

About 84% of Democrats who were surveyed supported mail balloting for all, a substantial majority that remained consistent with responses in 2020.

Arnaud Armstrong is trying to bring more Republicans around to the concept as executive director of Win Again, a political action committee focused on driving up GOP mail balloting in Pennsylvania, where early voting is limited to mail.

Armstrong said Trump’s mercurial embrace and demonizing of mail-in voting has complicated messaging for the party, but that’s not the only thing keeping Republican numbers down.

“Conservatives are conservative. When we do something a certain way for most of our lifetimes, and then it’s radically different, it creates confusion and distrust. Conservatives don’t like that,” Armstrong said. “I would love if he [Trump] held up a mail ballot and said, ‘Use this.’ But we see the biggest difference from leadership on the ground from Republican donors and groups embracing it.”

And minds can be changed when you knock on doors, Armstrong said.

“The first thing I say is, ‘I’m not asking you to like mail ballots. I’m asking you to do what is best for Trump and our Republican candidates. I’m not asking you to trust what a Democrat does with a mail ballot. But if you do this, you will be helping Republican candidates.”

He’s also asking Republican leaders to follow the Democratic Party model.

“They play the long game. They think 10 steps ahead and invest in unsexy things like voter registration and mobilization efforts,” Armstrong said. “We don’t, and it shows. And we’re running out of time to catch up.”

The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help our community of listeners and readers engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in the November 2024 election.

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