This month Chicagoans who’ve voted in the last two years will automatically receive an application to vote by mail. In fact, it’s likely you will find several reminders in your mailbox reminding you to vote by mail ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
That’s because a state law passed in May made it easier for registered voters to cast their ballot for the 2020 election without having to worry about lines or interacting with other humans during a global COVID-19 pandemic. It requires local election authorities to mail an application to vote by mail to anyone who has voted in Illinois in the last two years.
Approximately one million applications will be mailed out to voters in Chicago alone. This includes anyone who voted in the 2018 midterm — the primary and general election — as well as the 2019 Chicago citywide election and runoff.
Then there is the added layer of the Secretary of State’s Office, which is required to send a reminder to every Illinoisan about a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. That notice will also include a reminder about vote by mail.
While presidential elections historically see significantly more voters than midterms or citywide contests, the law limited the voter pool to the last two years to avoid outdated records.
When the expansion of vote by mail was debated in Illinois’s legislature, some state Republicans opposed it, concerned about the security of ballots. They expressed concern that a new provision for ballot drop boxes could lead to widespread fraud, including the potential for fake boxes or stolen boxes.
But in Chicago, a spokesman for the Board of Elections said efforts are being made to ensure safety of the ballots. For example, mailed-in ballots will require a signature, which will be checked against voter rolls. Additionally, anyone who votes by mail will be tracked, so that even if they attempted to vote again in person, the second ballot wouldn’t be counted.
Allen said he had less concerns about the security of the balloting for vote by mail than he did about past disenfranchisement of voters. He adds that the drop boxes — which will be located at all early voting sites — will give voters more options, especially if they are worried about their ballot getting lost in the mail.
“And that will be critical when we get close to election day and people might be concerned about getting a postmark or getting the ballot there without any kind of delay,” Allen said.
How to apply for vote by mail
If you moved recently, you can register online. Chicago residents can do that with the Chicago Board of Elections. Those in suburban Cook County can do that with the Clerk’s Office. For those outside Cook County, you can register with your local election authority — there are over one hundred in Illinois.
If you apply for your mail-in ballot online using your email, you will soon have the ability to track the status of that ballot online. Before, you had to trust that the post office didn’t lose your ballot, Allen explained.
“One of the things we are seeking with our mail-out applications and with our online applications are phone numbers and email addresses so that we can contact people immediately and not through the mail if there is any kind of issue with their ballot,” Allen said.
The new tracking system will launch in late September, the same time the mailed ballots will go out to voters. In addition to making sure your vote made it to the Chicago Board of Election headquarters, you will have the ability to confirm that it has been accepted and counted. If there is an error, you’ll be notified.
As of July 1, nearly 105,000 Chicagoans have requested a mailed ballot. Allen is projecting that number could reach at least 500,000 before November 3. The primary in March already broke the city’s record with 118,000 applications to vote by mail. Allen says the election board will expand outreach and community engagement about the expanded vote by mail initiative later this summer.
What else is new about voting?
This year, election day will be a state holiday with government offices and schools closed. Those closed schools will have to make themselves available as a polling place if the election authority requests it. And the age requirement to be an election judge was lowered to allow 16- and 17-year-olds. In March, some precincts had a hard time staffing precincts with judges. The city of Chicago had to offer an online training course for city employees to fill in.
The state law also authorized curbside voting for election day, though Allen doesn’t think that will be feasible at many polling places in Chicago.
The state has nearly $17 million in federal CARES Act funding to reimburse local election authorities for the added costs of expanding vote by mail. The state law includes a provision for the state board of elections to establish rules about reimbursements. The state agency that scores the financial cost of legislation reports that money won’t be sufficient to cover all the additional costs.
Claudia Morell covers City Hall for WBEZ. Follow her @ClaudiaMorell.