National debate over expanding mail-in ballot efforts has come to McLean County.
The panel that sets legislative goals for McLean County government has approved asking state lawmakers to order county clerks to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters.
County Board member Carlo Robustelli said during a recent legislative subcommittee meeting that the move will help people exercise their constitutional right to vote during a pandemic.
“Given that the federal government and CDC and Illinois Department of Public Health are making recommendations about social distancing about certain segments of our population that will be most vulnerable, we should be proactive in making sure people do not have to choose between their health and their life, and voting,” said Robustelli.
Other committee members such as George Wendt said those who really want to vote can do so already and spending money to send the applications is "ridiculous."
“There’s no reason we need to set up and spend all the additional time and effort to mail every single voter. People that are interested in voting will make sure that they get their vote in,” said Wendt. “All you have to do is call the clerk’s office and ask for an absentee ballot or go online and ask to vote by mail.”
“As we know, there are a lot of people across the county who do not have access to a computer, or don’t even know about this (option),” said Robustelli. “It’s a public health necessity and it’s the right thing to do.”
Wendt said that’s not sufficient to convince him.
“If you don’t have a computer, you can get on the phone. If you don’t have a phone then I suppose you can get a friend who has a phone to make a call for you or a candidate that knocks on your door and most candidates would do that,” said Wendt.
Wendt also said the request is not needed because he thhinks social distancing will not be necessary by election time. Democratic supporters of the measure disagreed.
“Much as I’d like to think it would be gone by November, I don’t think that is the case. I don’t think we will have a vaccine in place by then, and I don’t think we will have had a majority of the United States exposed or have developed antibodies by then. We could be facing another swell, another peak, in November,” said board member Elizabeth Johnston.
Johnston said if there is another way to easily get people mail-in ballots, she would look at it, but this is the way that it is being discussed nationwide.
Wendt said if the virus is still a factor in November, there will be bigger things to worry about than mail-in ballots, adding he considers such a mailing a waste.
“To spend the money like that when it doesn’t need to be done is a ridiculous thing,” said Wendt.
Robustelli estimated the cost at roughly $20,000 based on a bulk rate mailing cost of 19 cents a piece. He said there are 59,406 registered voters in the county and another 49,687 in the city of Bloomington.
“Given what we have spent money on over the last year for our elections program, I don’t think this is insurmountable,” he said.
The proposal also would ask federal and state governments to provide counties financial help to conduct the program. Wendt objected to that, too, saying he does not want to see state or federal governments borrow more money for this purpose.
Board member William Caisley said encouraging voting by mail could increase the number of contested elections. When he was a working judge, Caisley noted several contests that came before him boiled down to absentee voters and he said he imagines the reasons for contesting those ballots would also apply to vote-by-mail ballots.
“When we get outside of the presence of election judges, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Caisley. “I think it opens the way to election fraud. It opens the way for people other than the registered voter to vote the ballot and send it in. I think that’s a concern.”
Caisely also raised the prospect of procedural gaffes that could disenfranchise people.
“The election judges are supposed to initial the ballot. I had one case where there were 16 absentee ballots in the ballot box that the judges of election had put in there from absentee voters and the judges didn’t initial them. I thought it was a violation of their constitutional right to fill their ballots out. The appellate court disagreed with me,” said Caisley. “I think it opens the way to election fraud and I would be concerned about that.”
Robustelli distinguished the proposal from usual election procedure.
“This is an extraordinary set of circumstances and if we can support legislation that can provide people proactively giving them the option to vote by mail, it is not only the right thing to do in terms of their constitutional rights, it is also the right thing to do from a public health standpoint. We have a lot of volunteers and a lot of our election judges that are being exposed. The more people vote by mail, the less exposure there is,” said Robustelli.
Subcommittee Chair Jim Soeldner, a Republican, voted to send the piece of the overall county legislative agenda on to the Executive Committee so members of the full board can discuss the topic. The matter goes to the county board executive committee next week.
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