When Will We Know If Illinois’ Proposed Tax Amendment Passes?

Graduated Income Tax ballot
On the Nov. 3 ballot, Illinois voters are being asked whether to change the state's constitution to allow for a graduated income tax structure, instead of the current flat-rate structure. That would leave wealthier people paying higher income tax rates. Mary Hall / WBEZ
Graduated Income Tax ballot
On the Nov. 3 ballot, Illinois voters are being asked whether to change the state's constitution to allow for a graduated income tax structure, instead of the current flat-rate structure. That would leave wealthier people paying higher income tax rates. Mary Hall / WBEZ

When Will We Know If Illinois’ Proposed Tax Amendment Passes?

Outside the presidential election, there arguably isn’t any bigger outcome Tuesday than whether Illinoisans vote to change the state constitution to set up a new way of taxing workers’ paychecks based on how much they make.

But there’s a debate now as to when voters actually will have an idea of whether their income taxes will change.

Thanks to a potential flood of uncounted mail-in ballots and Illinois’ latest-in-the-nation deadline to count them, one of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s top political strategists said it likely will be well past Election Day before it’s clear whether the ballot question is a winner or loser.

“I think the odds are pretty high,” said Quentin Fulks, Pritzker’s former deputy campaign manager and chairman of the political committee pushing for the graduated income tax, Vote Yes for Fairness. “I’m anticipating probably a week to two weeks for us to know.”

The Illinois State Board of Elections reported that as of early Wednesday, 1.33 million mail-in votes had been received across the state, and another 1.2 million people cast early votes in person. The mail-in total already in election authorities’ hands is more than triple the overall amount of mail-in votes in the 2016 and 2018 elections.

With numbers like that, opponents don’t anticipate a long, drawn-out process in determining whether the amendment passed.

“With historic numbers of voters turning out early, we anticipate clerks across the state will count the vast majority of these early ballots on Election Day, giving us a clear direction on the outcome of the tax hike amendment,” said Lissa Druss, a spokeswoman for the Coalition To Stop The Proposed Tax Hike Amendment.

The issue of ballots being counted after Election Day has roiled the national political scene with continuing attacks on mail-in voting from President Donald Trump and a Monday U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred Wisconsin from counting mail-in ballots it receives after polls close next Tuesday.

In one of his tweets this week, Trump complained of unspecified problems with mail-in voting “all over the USA” — a claim to which Twitter attached its potentially misleading label — and insisted voters deserve election results on Election Day. Neither side of the tax amendment issue has raised similar objections about the counting of ballots after Election Day.

Expensive ballot initiative

In Illinois, the tax amendment has evolved into one of the most expensive ballot initiatives in American history, with more than $100 million being raised on both sides of the issue. Pritzker himself has invested $56.5 million and enormous political capital to get the tax change passed.

On the other side, Ken Griffin, the founder and CEO of the hedge fund company, Citadel, has channeled $53.7 million of his own fortune into defeating the initiative. A Griffin spokesman did not respond to WBEZ’s questions about whether the second richest man in the state is considering a run for elected office.

The two diametrically opposed sides have spent their fortune bombarding the TV airwaves with commercials portraying average Illinois residents making their case for or against the amendment while looking into the camera.

Under the plan before voters, income taxes would change from a flat 4.95% rate applied to all Illinoisans’ income to a sliding scale based on income. Those making $250,000 annually or less would pay the same or less than what they do now, while those making more than $750,000 annually would pay rates as high as 7.99%.

Overall, Pritzker’s administration has estimated the change in tax structure could yield roughly $3 billion more annually for the state.

Of 16 constitutional amendments that state lawmakers have put before Illinois voters, nine have passed.

How the amendment is approved or rejected

There are two ways for Tuesday’s amendment to pass.

One route is if 60% of those voting on the ballot question approve of it.

The other pathway — the one upon which backers seem most heavily focused — is if the total number of yes votes on the question exceeds 50% of the overall number of ballots cast in the election.

Establishing whatever that overall number is will depend on how many mail-in ballots remain to be tallied during the two weeks after Election Day.

Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked by Election Day. Illinois law allows for local election authorities to count those ballots for up to 14 calendar days after the election, which appears to be the longest such deadline of any state in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The deadline to apply for a vote-by-mail ballot in Illinois is Thursday, Oct. 29.

The Illinois State Board of Elections certifies the vote on Dec. 4.

Even state election authorities are giving credence to the possibility of delayed results on the tax question.

“It’s really a matter of the vote differential with what’s counted on election night and the number of [mail-in] ballots that come in to be counted after Election Day,” said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections. “We won’t know the true total number of ballots cast until all [vote-by-mail] is accounted for on Nov. 17.”

To date, 2.34 million mail-in ballots have been sent to voters, but slightly more than 1 million of those had not yet been received as of Wednesday morning, state election authorities reported.

Polling shows a close vote

Fulks says his committee’s polling shows the battle for changing the taxing structure in the state remains incredibly tight. Survey results his group released from mid-October found 55% of the Illinois electorate supported the graduated tax amendment, with 40% opposed.

Based on those findings, Fulks is expecting a tight election that could be decided by hundreds of thousands of untabulated mail-in ballots received by local election authorities in the two-week window after election day.

“If there are still 500,000 or 700,000 vote-by-mail ballots out there that have to be mailed in, that is one thing that could potentially throw the numbers,” he said.

“Unless we really just blow it out of the water and get 70 or 80% of the question or the other side gets 30 or 40[%] on the question, then we’re not going to know who wins” on election night, he said.

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