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Illinois County Clerks Raise Concerns Over Running November Election

A box of ballots mailed in for the Washington state primary election are shown Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Illinois may look to expand voting by mail for the general election in November.
A box of ballots mailed in for the Washington state primary election are shown Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Illinois may look to expand voting by mail for the general election in November.

Illinois election officials are raising concerns over pulling off the November election, given the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among those concerns is the ability to find enough younger, able-bodied poll workers. According to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 58% of poll workers in the 2018 general election were over age 60.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, said that poses safety concerns.

“We know the average age of 65 and above puts many of our current poll workers in the most vulnerable population for COVID-19. The nation right now is seeing a drastic drop in those willing to serve on Election Day,” Davis said.

That’s a problem, Davis said, because many Americans still prefer to vote in-person, despite vote-by-mail efforts implemented in Illinois this year.

Davis said one solution is to offer student loan reimbursement to those who volunteer at a local polling place. Davis introduced the Emergency Assistance for Safe Elections (EASE) Act, a Republican counter plan to the House Democrats' HEROES Act.

Included in the bill is $100 million for student loan reimbursement and recruitment efforts.

“We need to incentivize young people to get engaged. Obviously, civic duty is not enough for us to fulfill our need for poll workers, especially during a pandemic,” he said. “What I don’t want are forced polling place closures.”

Staffing isn’t the only challenge local election officials are facing. Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray said the vote-by-mail application mandate is running up costs on paper and postage for an office that already operates on thin margins.

Greene County Clerk Debbie Banghart said a positive COVID-19 test in her office means everyone’s working remotely, which could interfere with facilitating voting.

“We’re doing as much work as we can behind the scenes. My question is: what happens if we continue on this uptick … and the health department closes our entire office down, how are we going to do early voting—or anything, for that matter? We’ve got a lot of stuff ready, but we’ve still got a lot of preparation to do for this election. Right now, I’m not even allowed to step foot in my office.”

There also are concerns that vote-by-mail applications and ballots could overwhelm local election offices—as well as the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).

Matt Dietrich, public information officer with the Illinois State Board of Elections, said the best way to prevent that from happening is for voters to act quickly.

“[We’re] emphatically, practically begging voters: If you have any inkling that you’re going to vote by mail, if you are in any way inclined to voting by mail, get that application in now. When you get that ballot back, vote it as quickly as you can.”

Dietrich cited a letter penned by the general counsel of the USPS, encouraging voters to get their ballots in the mail at least two weeks before the election.

Regardless of the method, Dietrich said, the board really wants to encourage voters to plan ahead.

“If you really, really want to vote in person—which is important to a lot of people—think about voting early, as early as you possibly can, at an off-peak time when you’re less likely to face congestion at an early voting site,” Dietrich said.

With less than three months until Nov. 3, he said, it will be up to both voters and election commissioners to help the process run smoothly.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.