Illinois lawmakers passed a new law in May supporters said expands access to voting in the state but McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio said is adding significant costs to the his budget for the coming year.
Under Senate Bill 825, which Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law in June, Illinois has several new policies supporters of the bill hope will increase access to voting in the 2022 election. Included in the bill is a requirement that local election authorities like the McHenry County Clerk’s Office mail a vote-by-mail application to each registered voter, establish a single countywide polling center in addition to polling centers in individual precincts, and make Election Day a paid holiday for government employees.
The bill comes with a price tag, however, and county clerks like Tirio are factoring in additional costs for their offices in 2022 to ensure they are following the law.
The McHenry County Clerk’s Office is requesting about $1.1 million more for its 2022 budget than in 2020 when there was last a major election, Tirio said, bringing it to a total of about $3.4 million.
The most expensive new costs for Tirio will be associated with mail-in voting.
He is asking the county for funding to add two full-time employees to his office for additional work he thinnks the office will have because a projected increase in the number of people voting by mail. So far, the county has added one additional position to his office for next year.
Tirio also is projecting $438,000 for printing and postage expenses next year, in part because of having to send vote-by-mail applications to each voter.
“The legislature did not see fit to fund that themselves; they just dropped it on us,” said Tirio, a Republican. “Certainly could’ve had the Secretary of State or State Board of Elections mail those out.”
“If you look at other jurisdictions, when they start a major push for vote-by-mail, that number [of people voting by mail] goes up, it doesn’t go down,” he said.
During the push to have people vote by mail during the pandemic, Tirio said about 60,000 people mailed their ballots in.
More people will be needed to handle the ballots the county receives by mail, Tirio said. The process of collecting mail-in votes involves opening the ballots, sorting them, scanning them, and making sure they are valid. Last year, Tirio said he had several employees working all seven days a week for up to 12 hours each day processing the increased number of mail-in votes.
“I think the things that were passed are good overall for the citizens in the fact it gives them more access to the ballot and being able to vote,” said County Finance Committee chairman Mike Skala, R-Huntley. “The negative side is you push it down to each of the counties, and we’re expected to come up with the money to fund it and figure out how to do it. Without a revenue stream from the state to help implement these things, it becomes very difficult. You don’t want to shut out or not allow voters to have the opportunity to vote.”
State Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, led the bill through the Illinois House and said the feedback he’s gotten from clerks throughout the state has been mostly positive. He said no one has specifically brought up Tirio’s concerns over the cost of expanding mail-in voting, but West said costs passed on to counties was something House Democrats were looking at fixing with new legislation this week or next spring.
“With my conversations with county clerks and election authorities, there’s going to be a trailer bill and ways to figure out the costs associated with the bill,” West said.
The biggest problem West heard was regarding limits the state has on the number of people who can vote at a polling place. He said they are working to expand that number beyond 800 to help clerks save money on additional equipment costs if the rule was forcing them to add new polling sites next year.
Tirio’s budget request already includes requests for new equipment. He is asking for new technology to help process mail-in votes and new counting equipment.
These additions also will help make sure the problems the office had scanning ballots during the April election don’t happen, Tirio said. Some ballots printed for April’s election did not match the file the computer expected to read, causing votes to be counted for the wrong candidates and leading to a recount later in the week.
“That’ll never be an issue again,” he said.
The new state law also require additional consideration for election security, Tirio said, adding he doesn’t think the changes the law makes to elections are a good idea overall. He said Illinois already has made it so there are few barriers to voting.
“We’re in a time when people are concerned about election fraud, and if there was a vector for coercion and fraud, it’s more likely vote-by-mail than in-person voting,” he said.
“There are some really good reasons to have vote-by-mail, but my concern is that people will be coerced into voting [by mail] and to vote a particular way and they won’t have the protection of the polling place and the election judges to make sure they aren’t being coerced,” Tirio said.
While voter fraud is extremely rare, three individuals in Michigan were charged with fraud in 2020 in unrelated cases involving absentee ballots. However, the Detroit News reported 250 audits and court cases found no evidence of widespread fraud despite allegations by former President Donald Trump.
West defended his bill, saying it’s not a bad idea to try things that could make an election more accessible.
“It’s all about empowering our voters in any way we can. We want to be sure people know that Illinois is all about voter empowerment,” West said.
In order for people to trust the the electoral system and vote-by-mail in particular, clerks need to make sure they are running a secure election, Skala said. And that comes with a cost, including additional costs when there are expansions to vote-by-mail.
“I think we should make [voting] easy as possible, so we don’t have very poor turnout like we’ve had before. But that comes at an expense,” Skala said.
McHenry County’s elections are secure, Tirio said.
Its system has multiple safeguards to ensure the election is secure, including validation of a voter’s signature, several systems of locks to make sure ballots are not tampered with and secure computer systems and codes that ensure the vote count cannot be manipulated, he said.
The requirement for counties to have a countywide polling center will be met by keeping the countywide polling center at the McHenry County government offices in Woodstock, Tirio said. However, with Election Day 2022 now a state holiday, the clerk’s office will incur additional costs because it will need to pay employees extra for working on a holiday.
Other changes to Illinois elections included in the new law include a permanent vote-by-mail list voters can opt in and out of themselves and an option allowing election authorities to establish a polling place at county jails. The law also moved the state’s March primary date to June 28.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a new portion of the state elections law. Counties are allowed, but not required, to establish a polling place at the county jail.