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Illinois secretary of state’s office letter to voters causes confusion for some mail-in ballot applicants

Monday, September 21, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Dan Petrella & Kelli Smith

A letter from the Illinois secretary of state’s office informing some voters that they haven’t returned their mail-in ballot applications is causing confusion among those who have, in fact, applied to vote by mail.

Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, a Republican, told the State Board of Elections at its meeting Monday that the mailing has created “mass confusion” in his central Illinois county. Ackerman said he had to assign five employees, who otherwise could be processing mail-in ballot applications, to field phone calls from voters about the issue.

“It’s really created a major breach in trust in the system," he said.

The confusion stems, according to officials, from the requirements of a new law and a time gap between ballot applications being returned and the secretary of state’s office following through on its requirement under the law.

The law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June, gave local election authorities until Aug. 1 to send vote-by-mail applications to anyone who voted in either the 2018 general election, the 2019 municipal election or this year’s March 17 primary. Applications also went to those who registered or changed their mailing address after the March primary.

The law also required the state’s 108 election jurisdictions to report to the state elections board by Sept. 2 the names of all voters who had received an application and all those who had applied for a ballot. The secretary of state’s office had until Sept. 15 to send letters to those who had received but not returned an application.

“Per Illinois law, the secretary of state’s office was required to mail out letters by Sept. 15 to the list of names provided to our office by the Illinois State Board of Elections,” Henry Haupt, a spokesman for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, said in a statement. “We complied with this law.”

But the letter — which reads, in part: “Your local election authority had indicated that you have not yet applied for a ballot; however you still have time to submit an application for a vote by mail ballot” — left some voters who’ve already applied confused, according to some local election officials.

The secretary of state’s letter does not indicate the cutoff date for local election authorities to report their applications to the state board.

“The notices do not accurately reflect the current status of vote by mail applications my office has received from DuPage County voters,” DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said in a statement Friday. “Many voters who have applied for mail ballots, as well as voters who have no interest in voting by mail, have received these letters.”

Kaczmarek, a Democrat, sought to assure voters that her office is processing applications as they are received and will begin sending them out Thursday as required by the law. The letter from White’s office “is not part of any effort to pressure anyone into voting by mail,” Kaczmarek said.

While election authorities have been trying to assure people of the safety and security of voting by mail, Ackerman said, “What I’m hearing from people who call in is, ‘If you can’t communicate amongst yourselves whether or not you’ve processed my application, how am I supposed to trust that you’re going to process my ballot correctly?'"

The law requires the secretary of state’s office to send another similar letter by Oct. 15 based on application information local election authorities report to the state by an Oct. 2 deadline.

The State Board of Elections plans to work with the secretary of state’s office to clarify the wording of the second letter, officials said.

Voters can request a mail-in ballot by mail until Oct. 29 or in person through Nov. 2. Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3, and received by Nov. 17 to be counted.

As of midday Monday, nearly 1.8 million voters have applied to vote by mail. Altogether, nearly 5.7 million people voted by mail and in person in the 2016 general election.

Separately, a surge in online traffic caused the State Board of Elections' online voter registration website to crash Monday morning.

The site experienced technical difficulties for about an hour before the issue was resolved. Voter registration volume was about three times what the site normally sees, which resulted in the crash, according to Matt Dietrich, a spokesperson for the state elections board.

“Usually we could handle the increased volume but this situation was aggravated by a server shutting down," Dietrich said.

The surge comes just as early voting is set to begin Thursday in Illinois and only a day before National Voter Registration Day, an unofficial holiday dedicated to bipartisan voting advocacy and registering people to vote.

Dietrich said he doubts the surge is due to National Voter Registration Day, which the State Board of Elections knows about in advance.


A Lombard native, Dan Petrella has written for newspapers from Chicago to Carbondale. Before joining the Tribune in 2017, he was Springfield bureau chief for Lee Enterprises newspapers. He's also been an editor and reporter at The State Journal-Register in Springfield. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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Kelli Smith is the 2020 Don Wycliff fellow at the Chicago Tribune. She recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where she majored in political science and television with a minor in journalism. Before joining the Tribune, she interned at The Dallas Morning News and KTSM, the local NBC affiliate in El Paso.


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