Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022
Mail-in voting has been in the forefront this election season due to persistent COVID-19 concerns. Tensions exist between those who claim that mail-in voting is a safe and valid alternative to in-person voting and those who argue that it will lead to widespread voter fraud and inaccurate election results. Illinois was recently front and center in this national discussion when a Facebook post went viral, asserting that an Illinois couple who received multiple ballot applications could submit them all and vote multiple times without anyone knowing. Far from true, such misconceptions have many questioning how states will monitor mail-in voting to ensure that it remains an effective option in this crucial election.
Federal elections, state run
Article 1 of the Constitution covers the responsibility of overseeing federal elections. Thus, much like states have controlled their individual responses to COVID-19, they also have almost complete dominion over how their elections will be conducted amid the pandemic. Americans saw this state discretion play out earlier this year as several states postponed their primary elections because of COVID-19 concerns.
While Illinois was not one of the states that changed the date of its primary, it has since taken several preemptive actions in anticipation of its 2020 general election. In June, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed legislation into law effective immediately intended to expand vote by mail (“VBM”) and to encourage safe and active participation in November’s election. The new laws require local election offices to mail or email VBM ballot applications and time-sensitive dates to voters who cast a ballot in the past three elections, including those who registered or changed addresses after the primary in March. Under the new legislation, the Illinois State Board of Elections is also required to make modifications, such as allowing a new registrant to apply for a VBM ballot when completing online registration and adopting emergency rules to provide reimbursement for expenses related to the 2020 general election incurred as a result of COVID-19 and the new requirements.
The legislation also seeks to prevent overcrowding at the polls on Election Day by expanding early voting hours, permitting the use of curb-side voting (voters can fill out the ballot outside of the polling place), requiring local election authorities to establish a central voting site where anyone who lives in the jurisdiction can vote (regardless of precinct), and authorizing election authorities to establish additional early voting hours for those whom COVID-19 presents increased health risks.
The actual vote by mail process remains largely unchanged and streamlined across states, although many are moving to a No-Excuse model of balloting, which means that voters do not need to have a specific reason for requesting to vote by mail in their state. Once voters have requested their ballot by providing their name and address, local election authorities send their ballot along with one security envelope for the ballot itself and another envelope into which the sealed ballot is placed. The person must sign the outside of the second envelope to certify that he is a registered voter. Once local election authorities receive the mailed ballot, they cross-reference the voter’s name with her registration to ensure that she is registered and has cast a ballot from the address registered with the election authority. Once those facts are certified, the sealed ballot is removed from the outside envelope containing the voter signature so that the voter’s preferences remain confidential until Election Day, when states count the mail in ballots and add the results to the votes that were cast in person.
COVID-19 presents many changes, but one ballot one vote remains the same
While the pandemic has led to a unique election environment and many changes surrounding the voting process, one thing has not changed–one ballot equals one vote, and any person who violates this principle is guilty of voter fraud. Despite assertions to the contrary, mail ballot fraud is incredibly rare and states have multiple tools to address legitimate security concerns and protect election integrity when it comes to voting by mail. Identity verification is the principle method used to detect and prevent fraud. Illinois has taken precautions to improve its signature verification process by requiring the election authority to appoint a bipartisan panel of three election judges (as opposed to the single judge who currently makes this determination) to verify the voter’s signature and the ballot’s validity. Additionally, many election jurisdictions use safeguards such as barcodes to keep track of ballot processing, ballot tracking through the U.S. Postal Service, secure drop-off locations and drop boxes, post-election audits, and harsh penalties for anyone who uses mail ballots to commit voter fraud.
While the 2020 election will be unprecedented, it is not due to a change in one of the guiding principles of our democracy.