What good is your right to vote early in Illinois, if you canít even get a ballot?
Under current state law in some elections, early voting is scheduled to start almost two weeks before ballots can be ready. The law demands the impossible.
This week, election officials said the official start of early voting on Feb. 8 could be delayed by nearly two weeks in Cook County as the usual fighting continues over which candidates will be listed on the ballot for the March 20 primary. Delays also might occur statewide depending how long it takes to settle the question of whether candidate Scott Drury of Highwood will appear on the Democratic ballot for attorney general.
If the law is not changed, we can expect to see similar absurd delays in almost every primary election, where early voting is becoming increasingly popular.
The Legislature could fix the problem by changing the early voting schedule for primary and consolidated local elections. The Legislature also could reduce the number of signatures on petitions required for some races, making signature challenges shorter.
Under a 2015 revision to Illinois election law, what most people think of as early voting starts at scattered sites throughout Cook County and elsewhere in the state 15 days before an election. This year, that date will be March 5. On that day, election officials are required to open a limited number of polling places for people who want to cast their ballots without waiting for the traditional Tuesday.
But a conflicting part of the law requires early voting to start 40 days before an election ó without any requirement that polling places be open. Election officials say very few people actually attempt to vote that early. Nor, as Cook County Clerk David Orr points out, is it necessarily wise to do so before all debates are held and endorsements and bar association ratings are published.
Election officials can cope with the 40-day early-voting requirement in November elections, because they know the names of candidates long before Election Day. But in primary elections and off-year consolidated elections for local offices in the city and suburbs, the 40-day provision requires voting to start before election boards and the courts have ruled on who will be on the ballot.
Legislators are aware of the problem, but no one wants to be pilloried for suggesting cutbacks to early voting, which has been controversial in many states. Trying to do so might put Illinois on the Brennan Center for Justiceís list of benighted vote-suppressing states that have made early voting harder. Nobody wants that.
Besides revising the voting schedule, the Legislature should also consider reducing the number of signatures on petitions that are required to run for some offices. Now, candidates can be tied up in hearings day after day for weeks as opponents challenge the validity of signatures on their petitions and the candidates are forced to go line by line, proving the signatures are legitimate.
The purpose of the petitions is to show that candidates have a substantial measure of community support to justify putting their names on the ballot. But Democratic candidates for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, for example, are required to gather more signatures than a candidate for governor. That seems out of balance. Reducing the signature requirement somewhat would reduce the number of days it takes to rule on objections to petitions.
Sometimes, barriers to getting on the ballot have merit. Republicans, for example, really wish it hadnít been so easy for outspoken Holocaust denier Arthur Jones to get on the Republican primary ballot for the 3rd Congressional District with just over 600 signatures. But, too often, the signature requirement is excessive.
Itís probably too late to do anything about the problem this year, but the Legislature in 2019 has a job to do ó reworking some fundamental dates and numbers in Illinois election law so that early voting is never a joke.