Voting in a Crisis: COVID-19 and November’s Election

No one knows what the coronavirus crisis will bring in November. While medical innovations could dim the threat of COVID-19, experts say the epidemic could persist or reignite, making an ordinary in-person election unsafe.

In the shadow of chaos in Wisconsin and the tragic death of an Illinois poll worker from COVID-19, preparing for every eventuality is imperative. That’s why Reform for Illinois, along with its partners the League of Women Voters IL, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and the Better Government Association, is advocating for legislation providing for every Illinois registered voter to receive a postage paid ballot in November. 

Sending a ballot is the only way to guarantee that everyone has the option of voting safely on Election Day, even if in-person voting must be restricted for public health reasons.

The experiences of jurisdictions like Wisconsin and Los Angeles show that merely promoting mail-in voting is insufficient to expand its use to the extent November’s election may require. Sending everyone an application, as some have suggested, would not only maintain an unnecessary barrier to voting by mail, but consume resources that could be better spent on ballot processing.  

In addition, commonly repeated concerns about vote by mail have been overblown, with research showing vote by mail bestows no partisan advantage and that fraud is “extremely rare”.

Illinois’ Mail-In Processing Capacity Must Grow

While there are understandable concerns about current mail-in processing capacity, we must take significant measures to prepare for greatly increased vote by mail use in November regardless of whether the legislature acts to send everyone a ballot. This means:

In-Person Polling Places

While election authorities should plan to keep as many in-person polling places open as possible, any public health-driven consolidation of voting sites must be carefully planned and guided by inclusive decision making and consideration of factors that could impact voter turnout, particularly in historically disenfranchised communities.

Hoping for a Normal Election Is Not an Option

Although key arguments against sending everyone a ballot don’t hold up to scrutiny, we understand the very real challenges of implementing this plan including the cost, logistics, and speed necessary to put it into place over the next six months. Time is of the essence in getting our systems up to the task of handling a different kind of election.

Given the steady expansion of vote by mail here and across the country, any investments in mail-in infrastructure are likely to reap considerable returns in the future.

More importantly, if we want a safe, robust election in November, we have no choice but to act, and to act fast. 

We are heartened by Maryland’s and Nevada’s recent decisions to send their voters ballots for their June primaries despite having as little as sixty days for implementation. We are also encouraged by efforts in the Illinois legislature by Representative La Shawn Ford and Senator Julie Morrison to make sending everyone a ballot a reality.

We know our legislators are facing countless urgent priorities. November’s election is among them, and we urge them to act as quickly as possible to secure it.

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