Officials begin mailing 1.8 million mail-in ballots to Illinois voters

The number of people voting on Election Day in Illinois is likely to be reduced, with more people choosing to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Vote-by-mail ballots started going out Thursday to a record 1.82 million applicants thus far, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Legislation adopted in the spring in response to the pandemic ensured widespread publicity for the practice.

“It’s off-the-chart up this year,” Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said of early voting applications, which in 2018 numbered 500,000, of which 86% were returned.

In-person early voting also began Thursday in most of the state. Ballots may be cast at designated polling places in each jurisdiction. Early voting starts Oct. 1 in Chicago and Oct. 7 in the rest of Cook County.

In Adams County, in western Illinois, early voting remains popular, judging by the line as the office opened Thursday, County Clerk Ryan Niekamp said. Markers indicate safe physical distances and masks and hand sanitizer are available. Also, workers disinfect each station between voters, Niekamp said.

“We’ve done everything we can to protect voters themselves from COVID, and also protecting voters’ privacy is of utmost importance,” Niekamp said.

Niekamp, a Republican, said he’s mailing out 5,000 ballots to those who want to vote by mail, about 11% of the county’s registered voters. He and other election officials are defending the system’s integrity against those, including President Donald Trump, who have claimed without evidence that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud.

“We’re really pushing it, we think that that’s the best way for people to exercise their right to vote,” said Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, a Democrat.

Election officials are universally encouraging people voting by mail to to return ballots as quickly as possible, given delays in U.S. Postal Service delivery. In Illinois, mailed ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 17, Dietrich said.

Voters can also use drop boxes for their mail-in ballots, a new option this year thanks to the legislation approved in May. They must be secured to avoid tampering. The one in Adams County will be subject to video surveillance by the sheriff’s department, Niekamp said.

Roughly half of the state’s voting jurisdictions offer drop boxes, Dietrich said.

Yabrough’s office is also encouraging people who want to vote in person on Nov. 3 to apply for a mail-in ballot so if plans change and they can’t get to the polls, they can still fill out the ballot and deposit it in one of 60 drop boxes at polling places around the county. The drop boxes will be staffed, too, to limit long lines of cars.