URBANA — Brand new ballot drop boxes are on the way for early voters, but not all county election officials have decided to offer this option.
Those early voting ballots for the Nov. 3 election are set to begin hitting the mail Sept. 24, and Champaign and Douglas counties are among the area counties planning to offer a drop box option.
Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons said the vendor supplying the permanent drop boxes that will be placed in seven locations in Champaign-Urbana has a delivery date of Sept. 18, and his plan is to have them ready to receive ballots by Sept. 26.
Ammons has also rolled out plans to offer Saturday “drive and drop” events using portable ballot boxes for early voters in Rantoul, Mahomet, St. Joseph and Tolono.
Champaign County’s drop boxes cost $14,124 and are being picked up by CARES Act funding, Ammons said.
Douglas County Clerk and Recorder Judi Pollock said there will be one drop box outside the Douglas County Courthouse east entrance, and she hopes to have it in place by Oct. 7.
“We’ll just have one in this county,” she said. “That’s all we need.”
Pollock said Douglas County’s drop box will be emptied a couple of times a day by election judges from each party.
Among counties that won’t be making ballot drop boxes available for the upcoming election are Ford and Vermilion, according to their county clerks’ offices.
Vermilion County typically has about 29,000 registered voters, and after conferring with other counties, the Vermilion clerk’s office concluded drop boxes are “more geared toward higher-population counties,” said Deputy County Clerk Lindsay Light.
There were also some security concerns, she said.
“We didn’t feel comfortable just leaving votes sitting there,” Light said.
The new drop box option was authorized as part of a new state law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in June to expand early voting options and help reduce the number of people who would otherwise vote in person in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law also authorized election officials to send vote-by-mail applications to those who have voted in recent elections, but voters who didn’t receive the applications can still apply to vote by mail.
Ammons said he decided to offer voters the use of drop boxes because it saves taxpayers money, it’s “very convenient” and it takes pressure off the postal service.
“I also learned from my visit to Colorado during their primary that the election judges and the voters love them,” he said.
The Illinois State Board of Elections has advised that drop box collection sites be in well-lighted, convenient and accessible locations, close to public transportation and near or on college campuses and public buildings — locations with which voters are already familiar.
Collection boxes should be secured and locked at all times with only an election official or designated collection site team having access to the keys and/or combination locks, and they should be sealed with one or more tamper-evident seals, according to the state board.
Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said drop boxes will be used in Chicago/Cook County and the collar counties for the Nov. 3 election.
The board has asked election authorities in counties throughout the state to answer survey questions, including whether they will be using drop boxes, Dietrich said, but that information won’t be available until surveys are received.
Some counties, including Sangamon, weren’t planning to use drop boxes earlier in the process but began reconsidering after a July 30 letter from the U.S. Postal Service was shared, according to Dietrich.
That letter advised that domestic voters should have their completed ballots in the mail at least one week before the state’s due date to allow enough time for delivery.
“Under our reading of your state’s election laws, as in effect July 27, 2020, certain state law requirements and deadlines appear to be incompatible with the Postal Service’s delivery standards and the recommended time frame noted above,” warned the letter from Thomas Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the U.S. Postal Service.
Illinois law permits voters to apply for a vote-by-mail ballot as late as five days before the November general election, Marshall said.
If a voter waits that long and the ballot is sent by mail, “there is a significant risk that the ballot will not reach the voter before Election Day and accordingly that the voter will not be able to use the ballot to cast his or her vote,” he said. “That risk is exacerbated by the fact that the law does not appear to require election officials to transmit a ballot until two business days after receiving a ballot application.”
For all those planning to vote by mail, Dietrich urged applying as soon as possible.
Ballots postmarked on or before Election Day can still be processed up to two weeks after Election Day, Dietrich said, but it would be best to have as many ballots tabulated after the polls close on Election Day to have as accurate a picture as possible of what the final vote will be.
Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray said that county has acquired two industry leader drop boxes from Vote Armor for a total cost of $7,900.
He was critical of the drop box option earlier in the process, because he felt it didn’t offer the kind of voter transparency other voting options have, he said.
And he was concerned about some of the political schemes such as ballot harvesting that have been seen in other states, Gray said.
After learning about the postal services’ concerns, however, he went back to the stakeholders in his county and, with 24-hour monitoring with cameras planned, he became comfortable that “it can be done right,” he said.
Ammons said permanent location drop boxes being used in Champaign County will be made of one-fourth inch steel and “highly secure.”
The majority of Champaign County’s permanent drop box sites will be covered by security cameras, “and we are working with our partners to cover them all,” he said.
The drop boxes will be available around the clock, and contents will be picked up daily by two election judges, one from each party, Ammons said.
Drop box locations in C-U will include:
— Urbana’s Brookens Administrative Center, in the circle drive.
— The Urbana Public Library parking lot.
— The northwest corner of the University of Illinois Quad.
— The Champaign Public Library, north of the mailbox on State Street.
— The Champaign Public Library’s Douglass Branch, in the circle drive.
— The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District’s east parking lot.
— Champaign’s Sholem Pool, at the top of the circle drive.
Where and whenAmmons said use of the drop boxes is a pilot program for the state, and the county doesn’t have the capacity to add permanent drop boxes throughout the county for the upcoming election.
The drive and drop events planned in the four other local communities are intended to provide a similar level of access to voters across the county, he said.
Those events will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. each Saturday in October at:
— Lake of the Woods, Elks Lake Pavilion, Mahomet.
— Rantoul Township Building.
— Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, St. Joseph.
— Tolono Public Library.
For each of those events, an election judge from each party will be onsite with a secure, portable ballot box, and afterward, the election judges will drive the ballots directly to the clerk’s office, according to Ammons.
Champaign County hit the 20,000 mark in vote-by-mail requests as of Tuesday, Ammons said on Twitter.
Also as of Tuesday, 1.4 million voters had applied to vote by mail statewide, Dietrich said.
In addition to drop boxes and putting ballots in the mail, early voters will also have options to vote early in person.