Illinois spent $4.18 million nudging voters who did not request mail-in ballots

Illinois spent $4.18 million nudging voters who did not request mail-in ballots

When Illinois state lawmakers wrote the mail-in voting law, they decided voters who did not seek a mail-in ballot should receive a letter from the state, and then another.

When state lawmakers in May decided to greatly expand mail-in voting after COVID-19 impacted the March primary election, they built in a couple reminders for voters: $4.18 million worth.

The law tasked the Illinois Secretary of State with sending a letter by Sept. 15 to voters who had not requested a mail-in ballot. About 5.36 million voters fit that bill, so they received letters that cost taxpayers $2.29 million with printing, sorting and postage.

The law also called for a second round of letters to those who still had not made a mail-in request, and those 4.42 million reminders sent by Oct. 15 should cost another $1.89 million, based on postage as well as contracted sorting costs and printing costs of the initial letters. Final costs were not yet billed but should total about $4.18 million based on available information.

State employees were expecting some push-back over the letters. An email to department directors outlined the proper response: “Please refer any callers about this letter to their state legislator who put this mailing into law.”

And some voters were disturbed the state knew they had not requested a mail-in ballot.

The phones were ringing all day in Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza’s office after the first round of letters. She said calls were all coming to the desk of just one employee. She got that corrected to the general office number for the second letter, but again the call volume was huge.

“They sent out 111,000 letters with my name the first time and I think I got 111,000 calls,” Ming-Mendoza said. “I’m still getting calls with the second letter.”

She said callers were upset the letter told them they had not returned their vote by mail ballots when they had never requested one. She said the second letter was rephrased, but still people were upset it said they hadn’t requested a mail-in ballot when they had no intention of voting by mail.

“Oh, my god. Oh, my god,” she said of the statewide cost. “I wish they had given me some of that.”

The $4.18 million worth of reminders were not the only thing state lawmakers changed for this election as part of the mail-in ballot expansion. They also declared Nov. 3 a government holiday, which closed schools and initially added local government workers to the list of public employees with a paid day off. A judge recently overturned the day off for some municipal workers after cities and the Illinois Municipal League successfully sued.

State employees represented by AFSCME Council 31 already have Election Day as a paid day off, which means they are available to potentially get out the vote for Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “fair tax” amendment. Local government employees may no longer be available, as a result of the judge’s order.

Pritzker said Illinois needs the $3 billion income tax hike because COVID-19 blew a $6 billion hole in the state budget. But state lawmakers and Pritzker passed the 20th deficit budget in a row knowing the pandemic would kill revenues, yet they added $2.4 billion in new spending and decided to hope voters would pass the tax increase and that the federal government would come through with a bailout.

The Nov. 3 ballot question is a constitutional amendment eliminating Illinois’ flat income tax protection. If it passes, state lawmakers with a simple majority vote would be able to create new taxing brackets that can be used to tax retirees or impose city taxes.

Opponents of the progressive tax amendment say rejecting it would send a message that state leaders’ spending decisions are the problem.

That would include decisions such as spending $4.18 million to nag them about mail-in ballots.

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