Voting by mail in Illinois: An explanation and important information

What you need to know to vote by mail in Illinois for the 2020 election

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Voting by mail is an option for voters to cast their ballot by Election Day on Nov. 3. Any qualified person who is registered to vote in the state of Illinois can choose to vote by mail.

“Years ago, mail-in ballots were called absentee ballots, and they’re virtually the same thing,” DeKalb County Clerk Doug Johnson said. “We’ve had a vote-by-mail option for at least 10 years, so it’s nothing new. What’s new is the pandemic. [As an election authority], my office has done voting by mail for years. ... But we’ll work hard and conscientiously and make plans in advance to make sure things run smoothly.”

Voters can request a vote-by-mail ballot online, through the mail or in person at their local county clerk's office. Voting by mail begins 45 days before the election for military personnel and citizens temporarily overseas and 40 days before the election, Sept. 24, for everyone else. All applications to receive a vote-by-mail ballot must be received by Oct. 29.

To clarify this year's election proceedings in Illinois, Senate Bill 1863 (SB1863) was passed by both houses on May 22 and was signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker on June 16. The bill will remain in effect until Jan. 21, 2021.

The purpose of the bill is “protecting the health and safety of Illinoisans.” Due to COVID-19 causing “a severe public health emergency,” the Illinois General Assembly deemed it appropriate and necessary “to make certain modifications to the administration and conduct” of the November General Election.

One change in the bill is making Nov. 3 a state holiday known as 2020 General Election Day. All schools, state universities and government offices will be closed, with the exception of election authorities and polling places.

What’s inside the application, ballot?

Vote-by-mail applications must include the voter’s name, home address, address where the voter would like the application to be mailed, party affiliation for primary election and a signature. Every application will include a phone number or email address that voters can use to contact election authorities if they do not receive an official ballot or if they have questions.

Election authorities will begin mailing official ballots to voters on Sept. 24. Any voter submitting an application on or before Oct. 1 will receive a ballot no later than Oct. 6. Election authorities will mail ballots to any voter who request one after Oct. 1 no later than two business days after receipt of the application. The last day applications will be accepted for vote-by-mail ballots is Oct. 29.

“Voting by mail is exactly like voting in person, it’s the same ballot,” La Salle County Clerk Lori Bongartz said. “The only difference is that it’s through the mail. We’ll send out an application, voters fill it out and date and sign it. Then, on Sept. 24, we’ll mail out ballots to the voters that applied. They’ll receive the ballot, fill it out and sign it and place it in the certification envelope. Then they can either return it to us by mail, in person or at our ballot box return.”

The application process

Every election authority must mail or email an application for an official vote-by-mail ballot to people who have voted in the 2018 general election, 2019 consolidated election or the 2020 general election. No later than Oct. 15, the secretary of state will send a notice to any voter that received an application but has not yet applied for a vote-by-mail ballot.

La Salle County has mailed out applications to the 43,000 people who participated in the last three elections. By mid-August, La Salle County had received more than 7,000 vote-by-mail applications.

“For a presidential election, we have typically around 5,000 people that vote by mail,” Bongartz said. “I am very surprised at the number already. I still think we’ll get a few more.”

McHenry County has mailed out applications to voters that participated in the last three elections, or to about 155,000 voters. Just fewer than 20,000 applications already have been returned. This number represents an immense increase over the 2018 election, when the county had 8,153 residents cast mail-in ballots and the 2016 election, when there were about 2,300.

DeKalb County has mailed vote-by-mail applications to all 61,853 registered voters in the county. Almost 8,200 applications have been returned so far.

“Normally, we have about 1,500 mail-in voters total,” DeKalb County Clerk Doug Johnson said. “I think the number of mail-in voting applications and voters will only go up.”

Returning the vote-by-mail ballots

Voters will receive an official ballot in the mail to the registered address or the mailing address they requested. Any vote-by-mail ballot must be placed into the certification envelope provided. The certification on the envelope must be completed and signed and the envelope must be sealed.

Using a 55-cent first-class stamp will be adequate to send both the application and the ballot through the mail via U.S. Postal Service (USPS). However, the USPS has said that underpaid vote-by-mail materials will not be returned to the sender for additional postage and they will not be detained or treated as unpaid mail. Postage will be collected from the election office.

Mailed ballots must be postmarked no later than Election Day, Nov. 3, and they must be received within 14 days of the election.

Ballots can be returned to an election authority in person, at a location such as the county clerk’s office, during business hours. Election authorities will permit voters to return ballots in person until the close of polls on Election Day.

SB1863 also allows election authorities to accept any vote-by-mail ballots at secure collection sites, such as a drop-off box. The sites must be collected and processed at the end of each business day.

McHenry County’s secure collection site is located at the County Administration Building at 667 Ware Road in Woodstock. La Salle County’s is located outside the east entrance of the La Salle County Governmental Center, 707 E. Etna Road in Ottawa.

DeKalb County Clerk Doug Johnson said he has reservations about the ballot drop boxes.

“I have concerns about the security, cost, location and logistics of it,” Johnson said. “I worry about someone who has lighter fluid and a match when they go to drop their ballot off. Some counties have their boxes cemented into the ground, they have a 24-hour camera and signage. There’s a lot to think of outside of convenience, and I’m still thinking about it.”

Election ballot rejection

A vote-by-mail ballot may only be rejected by a vote of all three election judges if: the signature on the certification envelope and verification signature do not match or if there is no signature, the ballot envelope was delivered opened, the voter has already cast a ballot, the voter voted in person on Election Day or the voter is not a duly registered voter in the precinct. If the ballot is rejected, the election authority will notify the voter within two days after rejection or within one day if rejection occurs after Election Day.

The voter will be notified of their ballot’s rejection through mail, email or both. If rejected due to signature, the voter will be able to submit a statement and if determined valid, the vote will be counted before the close of the period for counting provisional ballots. If rejected due to the envelope being delivered opened, the voter will be able to vote in person or receive another ballot prior to the close of polls on Election Day.

Changing your mind

If a voter requested to vote by mail, but they decide to visit the polls on Election Day in person, they can vote in person if they surrender their vote-by-mail ballot to election judges and receive a new ballot. They must bring their vote-by-mail ballot with them.

A voter can fill out an affidavit stating they never received the ballot. They can also fill out an affidavit if they completed and returned the ballot but the election authority did not receive it.

If the voter admits receiving a ballot but they do not return it to the election authority, they would only be eligible to vote provisionally.

What Could Go Wrong?

A possible surge in mail-in applications and official ballots being mailed through the United States Postal Service (USPS) has led to concerns about the timeliness of receiving and returning election mail.

In a statement released Aug. 18, USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy acknowledged that the USPS will "play a critical role this year in delivering election mail for millions of voters across the country."

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” the statement continues. “Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards. The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and Election Day.”

To improve election mail visibility, the USPS developed customized Service Type Identifiers (STIDs) in 2018. STIDs help identify and track ballots and have increased the visibility of election mail.

McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio said he worries about last-minute applicants receiving and returning their ballots in time for Election Day.

“The deadline for vote-by-mail applications is Oct. 29, and it can take up to five days for a mailed item with a first class stamp to arrive,” Tirio said. “Our office has two days to mail out a ballot to you, which could then take another five days to arrive to you. You won’t get the ballot in time to mail it back to us and have it postmarked by Election Day.”

DeKalb County Clerk Doug Johnson said he is also concerned about timeliness and urges voters to “return applications and ballots as soon as possible by mail.”

“Voters should sit down, fill out their application or ballot and mail it back as soon as they get it,” Johnson said. “It will work just fine if people follow procedures and get the ballots back to us. You wouldn’t wait until the last minute to mail in your utility bill, and the same thought process should be used when returning vote-by-mail applications and ballots.”

The importance of voting

Bongartz said that voting by mail is an “easy, safe way to vote during the pandemic.”

“It’s a good option because of the pandemic,” she said. “People are afraid to vote in person, and I can’t blame them. Voting by mail is a safe alternative they can do from home.”

McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio called voting “expressing your political will, which is always important, even during a pandemic.”

“We’ve never seen an election cycle like this and don’t know what to expect,” he said. “In-person voting has had devastating effects. In the Louisville primary, there was one polling place open for 600,000 people and there were mile-long lines to vote. I’d encourage voters to vote by mail or vote early. Get an application as soon as possible and return the applications and ballots as soon as you can.”

Johnson said that, regardless of the method, voting “does matter.”

“I know of an alderman race’s outcome that was determined by one vote,” he said. “There are instances of one, two or three votes making a difference. Your vote does count. If you don’t vote, you’re allowing someone else to manage your life. You’ll be ruled and managed by someone else’s voting decisions. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”

Vote-by-mail applications can be obtained from a local election authority or at elections.il.gov/electionoperations/VotingByMail.aspx. To register to vote, or to check registration status, visit ova.elections.il.gov.