OUR VIEW: Vote-by-mail expansion good for public safety

The images of Wisconsin primary voters standing in lines stretched for blocks early in the coronavirus pandemic should serve as a lesson.

When the presidential election rolls around Nov. 3, there's a good chance we won't be past the COVID-19 health crisis. Voting by mail is a safer and more efficient option than voting in person. And Illinois is making it easier for voters to go that route.

Voting by mail isn’t a new concept for Illinoisans, but the process is getting a lot of attention lately as the longevity of the coronavirus pandemic is unclear and a presidential election is on the horizon.

Gov. JB Pritzker recently signed a bill expanding the program for the November election only, noting the program is aimed at ensuring “safe and active participation in the 2020 general election during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

The law requires local election authorities mail or email the vote-by-mail applications to voters who cast a ballot in the 2018 general election, the 2019 consolidated election or the 2020 general primary election, as well as voters who registered or changed addresses after the March primary – roughly 5 million voters. Any eligible voter who submits an application by Oct. 1 will receive their ballot by Oct. 6. Voters can also check with their local county clerk's if they aren't mailed an application but want to apply for a mail-in ballot.

The legislation also raises the standard for rejecting a vote-by-mail ballot by requiring local election authorities to appoint a bipartisan panel of three election judges to verify voters’ signatures and the validity of the ballot. Previously, only one election judge made this determination.

While opposers to the legislation point to the potential for voter fraud, statistics show that while fraud is slightly more common than in-person voting, it's a minuscule amount, according to an NPR.org article.

The article cites an op-ed by Amber McReynolds, a former Colorado election official and now the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Charles Stewart, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, which noted while over the past 20 years, more than 250 million ballots have been cast by mail nationwide, there have been just 143 criminal convictions for election fraud related to mail ballots. That averages out to about one case per state every six or seven years, or a fraud rate of 0.00006%.

About a quarter of all voters voted by mail in the 2018 midterms.

Many voters are likely to be uneasy being in close contact with others at polling places, especially seniors who are more susceptible to the virus. And for those who prefer to cast their ballot in person, the mail-in option will likely decrease the number of people at polling places, reducing risk of spreading the virus. Vote-by-mail expansion opens the door for more people to vote, comfortably and safely from their home.

No system is perfect. Election officials must be on high alert, and already working on preparations for efficiency and security.

Let's avoid the Wisconsin fiasco. Now that the groundwork has been laid to educate more voters by sending applications to their homes, more people are likely to avoid the polls, keeping themselves safe as well as helping prevent the spread of coronavirus.