By BEN ORNER and REBECCA ANZEL
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House of Representatives advanced a bill Thursday that would greatly expand voting by mail in the November general election, as well as make the day a state holiday this year.
By a 72-43 vote, and three members not voting, the House sent Senate Bill 1863 back to its original chamber. The bill was introduced last year as a piece of unrelated legislation and passed by the Senate. It was gutted this week in the House and replaced with the election language via amendment.
Senate passage, which was still possible Thursday night, is needed to send the bill to Gov. JB Pritzker to sign.
The 26-page amendment proposes unprecedented changes to state elections law to facilitate the 2020 general election and make voting easier and safer amid societal restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill would require county election officials, by Aug. 1, to mail or email vote-by-mail ballot applications to any voter who cast a ballot in 2018, 2019 or 2020, as well as voters who registered or changed addresses after the March primary.
No later than Sept. 15, the secretary of state would send a notice to people who received an application but not yet returned it.
Completed vote-by-mail ballots would also be able to be returned in new “collection sites.” As for voting in person, the bill would allow local election authorities to allow curbside voting, in which voters can drive up, be handed a ballot and fill it out in their cars.
SB 1863 would also make Nov. 3, 2020, a state holiday observed by state offices and schools.
Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, the bill’s chief House sponsor, advocated for the legislation Thursday, saying it will “balance public health concerns with robust participation in elections.”
“It will make vote-by-mail more user-friendly, efficient, secure and accessible,” Burke told the full chamber in the Bank of Springfield Center.
The bill would also increase the number of election judges after the March primary saw many elderly judges not show up because of safety concerns. Citizens as young as 16 would be able to be judges. Students — in both high school and college — would be notified of their eligibility to be a judge, as would people who are unemployed.
Local election authorities would assign bipartisan panels of three judges to examine mail-in ballots and disqualify ballots which all three judges believe have signatures that do not match voter registration files.
Local clerks could also choose to facilitate early-voting hours for people with certain health conditions.
The Illinois State Board of Elections filed a fiscal note stating if all optional provisions are implemented by every local clerk, the bill would exhaust the $16.7 million of federal CARES Act funding received for elections.
Burke, though, said that figure is an “extremely generous estimate” because she does not expect every election office to implement every provision.
Questions from Republicans
Before lawmakers on the powerful House Executive Committee sent the bill to the full chamber on an 8-5 party-line vote early Thursday, multiple GOP representatives questioned Burke about the legislation. In committee, Republicans probed Burke on the bill’s costs, the role of the Secretary of State’s Office and the security of collection boxes, among other things.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, asked whether an election authority inadvertently “screwing something up” would allow the governor to withhold federal reimbursement funds. Burke said the bill’s intent is for county clerks to implement the requirements listed, not to be “punitive.”
“We hope many county clerks, to the best of their ability, will implement the things we’ve made permissive and I think the intent is to make sure that they’ve got funding to implement some of these things and make voting easier and safer for all the residents,” she said.
Republican Rep. Ryan Spain of Peoria questioned Burke about a provision that would allow local election officials to process – but not count – ballots earlier.
“What we heard from the clerks was that mistakes and difficulties can occur when they’re trying to do all of this on election day,” Burke said. “And so they were hoping for flexibility to just do the preparation of the ballots ahead of time so that the actual counting of the ballot is smooth and more accurate and also faster.”
Spain expressed concern about the security of curbside and drop-box voting and whether they could be negatively influenced by “ballot brokers,” people who assist voters with filling out and delivering ballots.
Burke said the provisions are only optional for local election officials to implement and that laws regulating ballot brokers already exist.
On the full House floor, multiple Republicans cautioned that the legislation could lead to voter fraud. Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R-Kankakee, argued the collection box system is “not secure” and voting for the bill would be “reckless.”
“There’s not enough checks and balances, there’s not enough security, there’s not enough integrity to this ballot-harvesting drop-box system,” she said.
Support from Pritzker
Gov. JB Pritzker voiced his support for the bill Thursday during his daily briefing from his Capitol office.
“I’m very much in favor of making sure that everybody gets a ballot who is eligible to vote and then returns that ballot,” he said.
Although he said he would like more to be done, the governor said the legislation balances voting access with available resources.
“Sending out applications to everybody that voted in the last number of elections and still giving everybody else the ability to apply to get a ballot … is a reasonable compromise,” he said.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
By BEN ORNER and REBECCA ANZEL