With more than 2 million Illinoisans voting by mail or using special drop boxes for those ballots in last month's presidential election, there's no question the service -- expanded because of the COVID-19 crisis -- was a hit.
Not only did that total shatter the previous state record for ballots cast by mail -- approximately 427,000, in 2018 -- but it represented one-third of all the ballots cast statewide, newly finalized election results show. The 2018 total represented only about 9% of total votes cast.
Suburban officials predict the practice will remain popular in next year's consolidated local election.
"A large number of voters became familiar and comfortable with the process," Will County Clerk Lauren Staley Ferry said. "I expect the number of people who choose (to) vote by mail will continue to grow."
Voter turnout in local elections -- for seats on village and school boards, among others -- historically is much lower than contests for county, state and national seats like those on last month's ballot, so the number of people voting by mail in February's few primaries or the April 6 general election likely will be smaller than this fall's total.
But election officials expect more people will vote by mail in the spring than did in the last local election in April 2019.
"Voters who appreciate mail voting will continue to use it, and the curve will trend up," said Edmund Michalowski, Cook County's deputy clerk of elections.
Why voting changed
People long have been able to vote by mail in Illinois under the banner of absentee voting. Any registered voter can request a mail-in ballot, and no reason has to be given.
The program exploded this year because of the pandemic.
COVID-19 reached Illinois in January, less than two months before the March 17 primary. Because it requires people to gather indoors and possibly stand in lines, in-person voting was seen as a potential hazard by health experts and many politicians.
All officials did for the primary was request people give each other space when waiting to vote.
In June, however, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law expanding voting by mail.
Good only for the November election, the law resulted in applications for mail-in voting automatically being mailed to anyone who voted in 2018, 2019 or this year's primary. Applications also were sent to voters who registered or changed addresses after the March primary.
Under the law, completed ballots could be returned via the mail or deposited in special, secure boxes.
The law made other changes, too, including allowing curbside voting and widening early voting hours.
Many political activists, organizations and candidates -- especially Democrats -- actively promoted voting by mail with social media posts, letters and even phone calls to voters.
And it worked.
In Will County, nearly 110,000 people returned ballots by mail or via drop boxes -- more than four times the number who did in the 2018 general election.
In DuPage County, nearly 180,000 people used the vote-by-mail system -- more than five times the number who did in 2018.
In Kane County, nearly 85,000 people used the vote-by-mail system -- nearly six times as many who did in 2018.
Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham wasn't surprised voters embraced the service. A former president of a national association of county clerks and other officials, Cunningham had researched voting by mail for some time as some states moved to all-mail elections.
As he expected, voters here discovered it was easy to apply for mail-in ballots, vote and then use tracking programs to confirm their ballots were received.
Cunningham believes more people will vote by mail in 2021 than did in 2019. Other election officials agree.
"Now that many more voters have tried mail voting for the first time in this past election and had a positive experience, we anticipate that choice to increase in 2021," DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said.
Additionally, COVID-19 may still be a problem when it's time to vote next year.
"If there is still a rise in COVID-19 cases and restrictions are still in place, voters may opt to vote by mail to limit their risk and potential exposure," said Todd Govain, Lake County's chief deputy clerk.
It'll be different
Unless new legislation is enacted, voting by mail will be a little different in 2021 because the law applied only to last month's election.
For starters, the drop boxes that were popular depositories for ballots won't be available. All ballots mailed to voters will have to be mailed back.
Additionally, election authorities won't be legally required to mail applications to voters as they did this year. Whether they do or not will be decided locally.
"We need to evaluate where we'll stand on ballot postage costs," DuPage's Kaczmarek said.
On the up side, because fewer people are expected to vote in the 2021 local elections than did last month, it should take less time for election judges to process mail-in ballots -- which could result in a cost decrease from this year.
"Many election judges worked days, nights and weekends to process returned VBM ballots for this election," Govain said.
The drop-off in total ballots cast could be significant.
For example, only about 11% of Lake County's registered voters voted in April 2019, compared with more than 69% last month. Likewise, in suburban Cook County, total voter turnout was more than 71% for last month's election but only 14% in April 2019.
State Sen. Julie Morrison of Lake Forest intends to introduce a bill after the General Assembly reconvenes in January that would reinstate the expired vote-by-mail provisions. Morrison was the lead Senate sponsor of the original legislation, and she remains a big proponent of the service.
New election legislation likely wouldn't happen in time for February's primary, Morrison said, but it could be ready for April's general.
Some adjustments could be made, too, such as allowing voters to bring mail-in ballots to polling places on Election Day. Morrison also favors allowing people to register to automatically receive mail-in ballots every election.
"That's something we should look at," she said.