More than one million Illinois voters have requested vote-by-mail ballots so far this election season even with several weeks remaining before the deadline to request ballots.
The number of requests means the state has the potential to shatter previous records for the number of votes cast by mail in an election, the State Board of Elections said Friday. The record was set in the 2018 general election with 430,000 votes cast.
The apparent move to voting by mail is even being felt in Sangamon County which traditionally casts more 80 percent of its ballots in person, said Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray. The record for mail-in ballots in Sangamon County is 8,500, he said. Already, there are 24,645 requests for vote-by-mail ballots.
"We know it is going to grow," he said.
With concerns over the COVID-19 virus continuing to grip the state, voters are turning to voting by mail to avoid the potential risk of voting in person on Election Day. Anticipating that concern, the General Assembly passed legislation in May requiring that all voters in the last three elections be mailed applications for vote-by-mail ballots. There were about 6.4 million Illinoisans who voted in the 2018 general election, 2019 consolidated election (for local offices) and the 2020 primary election.
Applications will be accepted until Oct. 29. About 1.1 million have already submitted requests for vote-by-mail ballots. The ISBE said the total is probably larger because 28 election authorities have not yet reported numbers to the state. There are 108 election authorities in the state.
Although there is still time to request a ballot, election authorities recommend that people not delay if they intend to vote by mail. The U.S. Postal Service has warned that large mail volumes could delay the delivery of completed ballots to election authorities. Ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 3, Election Day, and must be received by local authorities by Nov. 17 in order to be counted.
"We’re going to be preaching to people early, early, early," said ISBE spokesman Matt Dietrich during a meeting of the Citizens Club in Springfield Friday. "Apply early, return it."
Vote-by-mail ballots will be sent to applicants beginning Sept. 24 which also is the first day for early voting.
Although an emphasis has been placed on voting by mail, preparations are underway to handle voters who still want to cast ballots in person, either by early voting or on Election Day.
Gray said all polling locations in the county have been examined to ensure that social distancing can be maintained during voting hours. He said every effort will be made to continue using locations that have been used in the past to minimize voter confusion.
Personal protective equipment will be provided to election workers who staff polling places on Election Day, he said. That includes masks, face shields and gloves. Hand sanitizer will be available for both poll workers and voters. Surfaces and objects touched by workers and voters will be regularly cleaned throughout the day, at least twice an hour and possibly every 15 minutes.
Voters are expected to maintain social distancing in the polling place, Gray said, and it will be suggested that they use sanitation products at the start and finish of their voting experience. Gray said voters will be strongly encouraged to wear masks.
"We’re keenly aware that at this moment, we would never deny access and or the constitutional right to be able to cast a ballot by not wearing a mask alone," he said. "We’re strongly encouraging because keeping everyone healthy during elections is an important part."
Gray said county clerks have been advised that additional guidance on conducting elections during the pandemic is coming from Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration. He said he hopes the guidance arrives soon.
"We’re welcoming that guidance. Sooner than later is certainly advantageous," he said. "We want to get this stuff in hand so that we can properly think through all that we need to adopt for. The longer we wait the harder it gets for us to be able to properly examine all of that and train and articulate it not only to our poll workers but the public at large."
On Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health issued guidelines to election authorities for polling places. Among other things the guidelines include:
Space polling booths six feet apart and also keep election officials six feet apart.
Consider Plexiglas barriers between voters and election officials.
Consider single-use objects where possible and disinfect other objects like pens between each use.
Offer masks to those who don’t have them and try to separate those who refuse to wear masks from those who do wear them. Those who won’t wear masks should be kept in a separate waiting area.
Contact Doug Finke: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr