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Counties

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Vote-by-mail plan doesn’t seem to be best use of federal funds

It’s possible to spend good money on a good idea in a bad way. Illinois Democrats have approved just such a strategy.

Expanding mail-in voting demonstrably increases citizen participation in one of our most cherished American rights. According to Vote.org, the last two federal elections saw roughly 25 percent of all ballots cast by mail. As with conventional methods, mail-in fraud is almost nonexistent, the notable exception being a 2018 North Carolina Congressional race that had to be restaged after a Republican operative was implicated in ballot harvesting.

Allowing voting by mail, along with casting early ballots at county offices and other approved locations, increases turnout by simplifying the process. Now, with the COVID-19 outbreak raising public health concerns — polling place lines are rarely socially distant during federal elections — it only makes sense to promote a method marrying participation and safety.

However, the bill lawmakers approved last week casts a wider net than is necessary without sufficient financial details. Though not as expansive as the plan Democrats initially backed, such as the Michigan approach of mailing ballots to every registered voter, Illinois’ expansion of an already stout vote-by-mail law still misses the mark.

Under the new plan, election authorities will send applications for mail-in ballots to anyone who cast a mail-in ballot in 2018, 2019 or the 2020 primary. If they don’t respond to the first salvo, they’ll get follow-up reminders in September and October. In other words, counties will be spending money to advertise to people already familiar with the process.

The money is coming from the federal government through coronavirus relief funds. State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, put the cost at $16.8 million, according to The Associated Press. That’s not quite $165,000 per county, and some obviously would need much more than others. Take that sum and divide it by the number of votes cast for president in 2016, it’s about $3.03 per voter.

Fraud prevention is a matter of not just penalties but also having trained election staff in county clerk offices across the state. They don’t just train judges for election days but also watch the mail-in process for irregularities and simply manage the major administrative task of getting everything sent and accounted for upon return.

If $16.8 million really is enough to help counties shoulder the cost of what surely will be a busier mail-in season — the actual cost probably is much greater — the money could be far better spent than on preaching to the choir. This is especially true in a time when it’s so easy to reach people through mass media.

Everyone who wants to vote should be able to do so safely. This appropriation is not the most efficient means to that end.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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