Election authorities in McLean County are mailing out tens of thousands of vote-by-mail applications to registered voters this week in advance of the Nov. 3 election.
Tim Mitchell, executive director of the Bloomington Election Commission (BEC), said he expects more than 25,000 voters in Bloomington may choose that option, largely because of the pandemic. That would represent half of the city’s active registered voters.
“I don’t know if I am going to get 4,000, 2,000, 20,000 (mail-in applications). It’s unknown,” Mitchell said. “I am planning that we are going to get back 25,000 to 30,000. That’s my guess.”
As of Tuesday, Mitchell said his office has received about 400 applications.
The state is requiring election offices to mail out the applications to help avoid long lines on Election Day in November. Election offices will issue mail-in ballots starting Sept. 24.
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, whose office handles elections for the rest of the county outside of Bloomington, said her office is sending out about 60,000 applications this week. She said her office has already received about 600 applications from those who accessed the online application.
“We are guesstimating probably half of our voters will vote by mail if COVID-19 persists,” Michael said in an email. “If it lets up and concerns diminish, more people will go to their polling place.”
Mitchell said COVID-19 is likely the main reason for the surge in mail-in interest, but suggested it could turn into more of a trend.
“Every day in the office, I’ve been fielding calls from voters who (ask), ‘How do I vote by mail? Because I don’t want to go out during COVID.’ That seems to be the predominant driving issue,” Mitchell said. “Now, are there going to be carryovers into the next election where people will say, ‘I’ll just vote by mail again’? Potentially.”
Michael said the county clerk’s office has seen a steady rise in voting by mail in recent years as her office has promoted it more.
Mail-in ballots can’t be counted until Election Day, but Mitchell thinks his office will be able to count those ballots in a timely manner because the commission bought a scanner that can process 70 ballots per minute. He said the commission’s previous scanner could handle two ballots per minute.
“It may be a little later than normal, but my goal is to get the tentative results that night,” said Mitchell, adding official results won’t come for 14 days to ensure all main-in ballots are returned.
Michael said her office has 12 counting machines in her office, nine more than before, to count the additional paper ballots, but she said the pandemic could lead to last-minute changes in staffing and how people decide to vote.
“Expect results to be delayed,” Michael said. “Anything else will be a plus. There are just too many unknowns for this election cycle.”
Election authorities aren't the only ones sending out vote-by-mail applications. Mitchell and Michael said their offices have taken calls from residents who say they've received applications from other organizations.
“I’m not thrilled other organizations are sending these out, especially when we are sending them out, because most of the ones that are coming from other organizations generally have an agenda attached to them, or are being sent to specific groups of demographics,” Mitchell said.
He said if a nursing home, for example, turned in a bunch of applications at once, that would be OK. Otherwise it might raise suspicions.
“That’s a scenario I’ve have a concern with. If a group brought in a bunch of vote-by-mail ballot applications and then handed them to me, I’d have to question some of that,” he said.
Mitchell said the election commission may still accept applications from outside groups, but said it will likely seek guidance from the Illinois State Board of Elections (ISBE) and BEC’s legal counsel.
Matt Dietrich, a spokesperson for the ISBE, said outside organizations, and sometimes candidates themselves, send out vote-by-mail applications and it’s legal as long as the applications meet basic criteria.
“Generally, this practice is allowed and is used regularly,” Dietrich said.
Mitchell took over as executive director of the Bloomington Election Commission in late June, following Paul Shannon’s retirement. Mitchell comes from an 18-year IT career in the insurance industry. He first got involved in elections in 2006, first as an election judge.
Mitchell can’t help but chuckle at the thought of taking over an election authority prior to a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” he quipped.
Mitchell and Michael both project 80% voter turnout in November.
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