Illinois Lawmakers Push Vote-By-Mail Expansion — But Not Much Else — During Emergency Session

Durkin Madigan
Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, left, and Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, part ways after conversing on the floor during the spring legislative session Thursday, May 21, 2020. The Illinois House of Representatives is conducting their spring session at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield, Ill., instead of in their chamber in the Illinois Capitol building a few blocks away because it affords more space for to practice social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The State Journal-Register via AP
Durkin Madigan
Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, left, and Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, part ways after conversing on the floor during the spring legislative session Thursday, May 21, 2020. The Illinois House of Representatives is conducting their spring session at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield, Ill., instead of in their chamber in the Illinois Capitol building a few blocks away because it affords more space for to practice social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The State Journal-Register via AP

Illinois Lawmakers Push Vote-By-Mail Expansion — But Not Much Else — During Emergency Session

A plan to enhance vote-by-mail to keep Illinois polling places free from crowds in a pandemic advanced at the statehouse, but other items on Gov. JB Pritzker’s wishlist languished Thursday with time running out in a shortened legislative session.

There was no movement on a new $39.9 billion state budget or on a COVID-19 relief package favored by the governor, underscoring the glacial pace at which the Democratic-led General Assembly appeared to be moving as a scheduled Friday adjournment loomed.

One issue appearing to be stuck in place was a measure to strengthen Pritzker’s ability to fine businesses that defy his emergency stay-at-home orders, which have devastated Illinois’ economy. Senate Democrats had agreed to pick up that initiative after the governor abruptly dropped his push this week for an emergency rule that was opposed by Republicans.

One senior Democratic lawmaker told WBEZ late Thursday it was an issue on which they were “not seeing much activity,” but they expected lawmakers to approve a COVID-relief package and a budget Friday.

One GOP source familiar with the latest version of the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget said it appeared to be awash nearly $5.8 billion in the red, a fiscal crater created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the staggering drop in state sales and income tax revenues it has caused. The sources spoke to WBEZ on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing legislative negotiations.

Friday represents the third and possibly final day of an extraordinary legislative spring session held amid the state’s COVID-19 public health crisis, which claimed 87 more lives Thursday, bringing the overall death toll to 4,607.

Lawmakers wore facial coverings and maintained six feet of distance from each other. House members operated out of an expansive convention center in downtown Springfield. At the Capitol building, senators were called to the Senate floor for votes in groups of 10 to allow for proper distance from one another.

The only movement on anything substantive in either chamber of the legislature came when the House voted to expand access to mail-in ballots for November’s election. The proposal also would make Election Day on Nov. 3 a state holiday for schools and universities, but not for local governments or private businesses.

The Democratic-crafted election bill, which Pritzker described earlier in the day as a “reasonable compromise,” passed the House 72-43 over the objections of Republicans, who feared it would invite voter fraud. The measure now moves to the Illinois Senate.

The measure’s chief House sponsor, Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, said election authorities could use closed schools as polling locations instead of nursing homes. But she did not immediately have an estimate for what the bill’s requirements would cost local election authorities, while adding that she anticipates the federal government to reimburse some of the costs.

“We’re trying to help with the public health access as well as increase access to the voting process for people,” Burke said. “We’re trying to assist in keeping the public health impact of COVID low or lower than it would be if people were all gathering in person at polling places to vote. So there may be a cost, but there are a lot of costs we’re incurring to fight this pandemic, and this is one of them.”

But Republicans cried foul, accusing Democrats of wanting to goose turnout by their supporters in November.

“This legislation is nothing more than a partisan power play to create an advantage in next November’s election in the congressional races and also the state legislative races,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said. “I’ve been around here long enough. I know how this works.”

Under the bill, voters who have cast a ballot since 2018 are supposed to automatically be sent a vote-by-mail application.

The measure passed along party lines, with Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the House, advancing the bill. Republicans objected to a provision they argued would codify threats Pritzker has made to withhold federal money intended for local governments that defy his stay-at-home orders.

“We’re making some big mistakes in this bill and the one I’m most deeply concerned about is giving rise to massive ballot harvesting initiatives that really destroy the integrity of elections,” Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, said.

Spain objected to the use of a sort of dropbox, in which voters could drop off their completed ballot instead of mailing it via the U.S. Postal Service. It could lead to ballot-stuffing, he warned. But Burke said local election authorities asked for the dropboxes because they had heard complaints from voters who didn’t want to put their ballot in a mailbox.

The proposal to allow for expanded mail-in voting still needs approval from the full Illinois House and Senate, and from the governor.

Republican President Donald Trump has also questioned the expansion of vote-by-mail as an alternative to in-person voting during the pandemic.The president initially threatened to withhold federal funding from states like Michigan which are expanding mail-in voting. Trump’s objections come despite the fact that he voted by mail in Florida’s recent primary and has voted absentee in previous elections.

During his daily afternoon press conference Thursday, Pritzker ridiculed the GOP for questioning the expansion proposal. “Republicans, generally speaking, have been in favor of suppressing the vote all across the nation,” Pritzker said. “They think it’s bad for them if more people vote. I think everybody has the right to vote. Where you live in a democracy, the vote is sacred.”

Those words prompted Spain to lash out from the House floor later Thursday, saying efforts to pit one party against the other is getting “very, very, very” old to him.“Governor, I take great personal exception to your comments, and our state and our country is in need of uniting leadership in this difficult time,” Spain said. “And for you to accuse myself, this caucus or a political party of being interested in diminishing the ability of our citizens to vote, I think, is gravely disappointing.”

Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney cover Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @tonyjarnold and @davemckinney.