Illustration by Julie Merrell

Woodlawn resident Sandra Butler knew she wanted to vote in this year’s municipal election. Despite years of voting in person at her designated polling location in the neighborhood, when Butler’s mother got ill, she put in two voter applications to vote by mail—one for her and one for her mother.

“I did it for the convenience,” Butler said. “Unfortunately, [the City is] renovating my neighborhood, so the streets where I normally would go to vote, they shut down, and another location was a couple of blocks away.”

For years, Illinois voters have had three options: voting in person on election day, early voting, and voting by mail, which they’ve had to request prior to each election. Yet Butler’s story comes just a little over a year after the passage of a 2022 Illinois law that amended the Elections Code and allowed voters to permanently register to automatically receive ballots in the comfort of their own homes and vote by mail in every election going forward.

Voting by mail became popular at the start of the pandemic, but the option to vote by mail has been around since the 19th century.

“It’s really important to get to the history of [voting by mail] and why we established it in the first place,” said Jen Dean, co-executive director at Chicago Votes. “Vote by mail comes from the Civil War when soldiers were not at home; the government wanted to ensure that they were still able to vote while serving in the military, and then they expanded it to include everybody else.” 

While every state has some voting by mail options, some states impose restrictions on who is allowed to vote by mail or under what circumstances. For example, in Indiana voters can request to vote by mail if they’re working all of election day, traveling, or have an illness or disability that prevents them from going in person. 

The Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act is proposed federal legislation that would remove these requirements and allow voting by mail in every state for any reason, though it’s been stalled in committee for a few years. 

“In Illinois, we worked really hard to make sure that it was implemented because we know that not everybody has the ability to go physically to the polls,” Dean said.

Voting by mail, formerly known as absentee voting, was enacted into Illinois law after 1865. By the time 2020 rolled around, voting by mail seemed like the safest, most viable option at the time, and the data from voters who took advantage of it, according to the Chicago Board of Elections, did so in record-breaking numbers.

“Vote by mail expanded greatly during the pandemic, especially in 2020,” said Max Bever, director of public information at the Chicago Board of Elections (CBOE). “That is where vote by mail use in the City of Chicago really expanded from the 20,000, 30,000 vote-by-mail ballots for each election to now hundreds of thousands.” 

Bever said that the CBOE has seen a consistent rate of mail-in ballots since 2020. “The peak was November 2020. Probably not a surprise, but the Board received just over half a million vote-by-mail applications, and we received just over 450,000 of those back. That is the highest amount of vote-by-mail applications and vote-by-mail ballots in any election within Chicago.”

For both the November 2022 election and the recent municipal election, the Board received nearly 215,000 applications, which marks the highest number of vote-by-mail applications in any Chicago municipal election.

While this practice remains a popular option with voters, voting by mail does not minimize or eradicate all voter challenges and obstacles.

Tre King, a Chicago Votes fellow in the Give A Sh*t initiative, highlighted that while voting by mail can accommodate elderly and disabled folks who may have struggled with voting in person in the past, it doesn’t necessarily aid those who are homeless, houseless, or formerly incarcerated.

“Although [voting by mail] does help a lot of people, it does hurt a lot of people. But, for example, [if a voter does not have] a permanent residence or somewhere that you can call home, even if it’s temporary, then that system of mail-in voting may not be right for you,” King said.

“When the Board of Elections does send out vote by mail, they’re probably not getting the addresses of a lot of people with previous convictions,” said Dean. “It would be great to alternate those roles, specifically to make sure that they’re having outreach to people who are most impacted as well.”

And even when people do vote by mail, the process isn’t always seamless or foolproof. In fact, when trying to find residents to talk to for this story, the difficulty of finding mail-in ballot voters was due to the fact that so many voters, young and old, want to see their votes counted. And for them, having that piece of mind comes from in-person voting where the result is confirmed shortly after filling in those bubbles.

Dean, whose work focuses on political participation in Illinois, submitted her ballot in the February election via mail and received a rejection from the Chicago Board of Elections because, despite mailing it in a week before Election Day, it was “not received in time” and “not postmarked correctly.” 

Prior to that, she received a Republican ballot even though she was not registered with the party.

“If I’m having these problems and I’m considered an election expert in Chicago, what is happening to the rest of the city?” Dean says. “What is happening with all of these votes?”

To confirm voter identification in Chicago, Bever said, the Board goes through a process of signature verification to determine whether or not a voter’s signature on a mail-in ballot matches voter materials the Board has on file for that registered voter. 

“Signatures change over time, and we are trying to work with more voters to have an easier way to update their signatures rather than just coming downtown or sending in a new form,” Bever said. “Out of the 167,000 [vote-by-mail ballots] that we’ve got right now, about 2,000 of those are still rejected based off of those issues. That is a restriction to be mindful of with voters, especially if there is an older voter or a voter with disabilities.”

Dean said Chicago Votes stresses the importance of considering various voting options, with each option having its own pros and cons. However, since the number of vote-by-mail ballots has increased in recent years, she offered suggestions on how to make it a more inclusive and reliable option, while avoiding administrative errors that have plagued thousands of voters’ ballots.

For one, Dean said that election judges, who usually go through virtual training, need more rigorous, in-person instruction.

“The reality is we need to take a big step back and get the logistics of both vote-by-mail and in-person voting and see how many ballots are actually getting turned away,” Dean said.

Dean further examined the timeline of where and how these mail-in votes are being counted since elections are generally determined in the same week of voting.

“If I’m getting a rejection letter a week after election day, are they even trying to find my ballot? How many people are actually going through them?”

While voters can opt in for a permanent mail-in ballot, future plans could change, and Chicagoans could decide that voting in person for a given election may suit their needs and schedule better.

“As of last year, [the Chicago Board of Election] started adding a box to the vote-by-mail ballots, and it says, ‘Do you want to opt in for a vote-by-mail ballot forever?’ Basically, if you checkmark that, that is an official ballot application for every election moving forward,” Dean said.

Dean said she checked the box but forgot all about it when she went to vote in person. 

“So when I went to go vote in person this time, the election judge told me, ‘…you filled out a vote-by-mail application; you should not be voting in person,” Dean recalled. “[But] I did not fill out a vote-by-mail application [for this election]. So it causes confusion with me and the election judge. And on top of that, the election judge was unaware of what to do.”

But it’s clear some voters will opt for it anyway because it can be convenient and save a trip to the polls. Butler, who loves the accessibility and comfort of voting by mail, printed out fifteen other applications for permanent voting by mail to give to friends, family, and neighbors. From now on, it’s the option she swears by.

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Gretchen Sterba is a freelance journalist based in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. She’s written for the Chicago Reader, HuffPost, BUST Magazine, and more. This is her first story for the Weekly.

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