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Election Officials Plan For Influx of Mail-In Ballots With New Ballot Return Options

Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois

Chicago’s election agency plans to allow voters to drop off their mail-in ballots at all early voting sites starting in mid-October. In Champaign County, the county clerk plans to have up to six drop boxes for voters to put their ballots in through Election Day.

In Morgan County in central Illinois, voters can return their ballots in a drop box set up for property taxes and traffic ticket payments when the county building was all but shut down at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

An Illinois law approved in May provides new options just for the November election for local officials to collect mail-in ballots, which lawmakers said are meant to encourage the method amid the coronavirus pandemic. Options include staffed, temporary collection sites, drop boxes, and drive-through sites.

A spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections said ideally election authorities would decide before September 24 – when mail-in ballots are sent to voters and early voting starts.

The decision for what alternatives to make available to voters has become more pressing in recent weeksas controversy has erupted over funding of the postal service and its ability to handle a potential influx of mail-in ballots. In July, the U.S. Postal Service sent a letterto ISBE saying it may not be able to accommodate deadlines for getting mail-in ballots delivered on time.

“In particular, we want to note that, under our reading of Illinois’ election laws, certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service’s delivery standards,” the letter from USPS General Counsel Thomas Marshall reads. “This mismatch creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them.”

The state elections board does not take a position on what methods for collecting ballots local election officials should choose, said spokesman Matt Dietrich. However, he said the postal service letter does reinforce the agency’s message that voters should decide early how they want to vote in the November election, and those who want to do it by mail should request a ballot as soon as possible and return it promptly.

Sixty of the 108 election authorities in the state responded to an ISBE survey from mid-July asking which alternatives they might use, according to results provided by the agency. Just over half of the respondents – 34 – said they didn’t plan to use any. Many of the remaining opted for drop boxes or temporary, staffed collection sites.

Don Gray - the Sangamon County Clerk – said he wasn’t planning to use ballot drop boxes before the postal service letter. He’s now considering it and wants to make sure the process is transparent and secure.

“If all those variables are met, we'll be comfortable to provide for drop-boxes,” said Gray. “If they're not and there are still concerns, we'll come up with other means. There's plenty of ways to do this that uphold the integrity of the electoral process.”

The state election authority has rules to ensure security , including 24-hour camera monitoring for drop boxes and security seals for the collection site and ballot removal.

Gray said voters can still drop off their ballots at the county building.

Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons said his office is planning to install up to six drop boxes.

“Those are quarter-inch, steel drop boxes that are either bolted to the concrete or cemented in the ground. And they will be 24-hour locations all the way up into Election Day at 7 p.m.,” he said.

He said the convenience and cost-effectiveness of the option are reasons why he’s choosing to use them. Ammons said he’s following a model from National Vote From Home Institute – an organization that advocates for voting by mail.

Chicago is planning to place boxes in its early voting locations throughout the city.

However, there is opposition. The Liberty Justice Center is suing the governor over the law that encourages mail-in voting. The suit – filed on behalf of the Cook County Republican Party – claims the process is partisan and ripe for fraud.

Republicans, including Congressman Rodney Davis, have raised concerns about ballot harvesting, third-parties collecting people’s ballots and returning them.

Still, elections experts say fraud related to mail-in ballots, while slightly more common than in-person, is still very rare.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Mary is a reporter at NPR Illinois and graduated from the Public Affairs Reporting program atUISand received her BA in International Studies from American University. Previously Mary worked as a planning consultant and reported for the State Journal-Register where she covered city government.