(The Center Square) – State lawmakers are one step closer to expanding vote-by-mail options in Illinois with a measure that could mean funds are withheld from counties that don’t go along.

Illinois already offers voting by mail, where anyone can request a ballot. The option was used by many during the March primary, which occurred at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois. Expanding the program for the upcoming election has been a major item for the Spring special session in Springfield.

The House Executive Committee, which met at the Bank of Springfield Center, debated amendments to Senate Bill 1863 that would mail or email anyone who voted in recent elections.

State Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, said the measure is only for the Nov. 3, 2020, election.

“It’s important we’re doing everything that we can to protect our residents and ensure that they have access to voting,” Burke said.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, raised a host of concerns, including ensuring that local elections authorities update voter rolls. He called for the Illinois Auditor General to audit voter rolls across the state.

“When [the Sangamon County Clerk does] this every two-year-correction of the rolls, he sends out a voter registration card to every voter in Sangamon County and if it’s returned as undeliverable he goes through the process to take them off the rolls,” Butler said. "This is my point on why we need to makes sure that all 108 election authorities have cleaned their rolls before the 2020 general election.”

Burke said there’s not enough time to do that.

Butler also took issues with an element of the bill that would withhold funds for elections during the pandemic from local elections officials if they don’t implement them.

“I was told by my county clerk that this is at least $200,000 in Sangamon County this year and the number that I’m hearing this morning is at least $31 million statewide,” Butler said.

Burke said the effort wasn't designed to be punitive, but to get compliance from local officials to implement the program to “make voting safer and easier” in the upcoming election. She said it would cost about $4.2 million to send all voters ballots by mail.

Butler and others raised concerns of the role the Secretary of State’s Office would play in the legislation, given the Secretary of State's Office has been closed during the COVID-19 crisis and the problems the office had with the state's automatic voter registration program.

Burke said she was confident the office will be able to handle the challenge.

State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, said that was the same sentiment from the Secretary of State’s office concerning automatic voter registration, but reports earlier this year showed hundreds of improperly registered voters being forwarded to local officials.

While he said he supports voting by mail, Spain said he was worried about ballot stuffing and ballot harvesting.

“But we’re making some big mistakes in this bill and the one that I’m most deeply concerned about is giving rise to massive ballot harvesting initiatives that really destroy the integrity of the elections that we’re all here sworn to uphold and represent,” Spain said.

The measure, which advanced out of committee, would also make the general election a state holiday for schools so there could be more opportunity for voting to occur at such locations.

President Donald Trump said this week he could consider withholding federal funds from states that expand vote-by-mail, raising concerns that expanding such programs could lead to fraud.

Staff Reporter

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other statewide issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience, and previously hosted “Bishop On Air,” a morning-drive current events talk show.