Editorial: Illinois’ mail-in voting system needs a fix. It’s far too slow for today’s world.

We’re nearing the one-week anniversary of the primary election, and as we write vote counters still are tallying ballots to determine who will be the next Cook County state’s attorney.

Accompanying the wait for an outcome in this nail-biter of a race was a forehead-slapping mistake by the Chicago Board of Elections in which the board spokesman neglected to communicate until Saturday the presence of more than 9,000 ballots “received back via USPS the evening of Monday, March 18.” He took the blame for the mistake, and the campaigns for both Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III have sought to reassure supporters that they’ve seen nothing in the counting so far to concern them.

Still, the delay in determining a winner and the confusion over the process since Tuesday unsurprisingly have fed conspiracy theorists on X and elsewhere, especially since the Cook County Democratic Party strongly endorsed Harris, who for now is trailing. Party head Toni Preckwinkle frequently disparaged Harris’ fellow Democrat, Burke, who is leading the tight race.

Cook County and Chicago, given their political machine legacies, are particularly fertile grounds for conspiracy theorizing.

We see no evidence of anything nefarious and to this point believe the mistakes, as significant as they’ve been, are honest. The official voices on X who’ve hinted at shenanigans (and then, in at least one aldermanic case, deleted the post) should be more disciplined and refrain from fueling these conspiratorial fires without evidence.

That said, after the election finally is called, Chicago and Cook County need to go about reforming a voting process whose flaws have been exposed by this extraordinarily close vote. At the heart of what needs changing is the mail-in system.

Rules currently allow for counting of mail-in ballots if they’re postmarked no later than Election Day and also received within two weeks (those who worry about mail delays also have the option to use secure, designated drop boxes). Illinois’ policy is among the most liberal in the nation. Most states allow for mail-in voting, but the majority nonetheless require the ballots to be received by Election Day itself, or within a week at most, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voting by mail, of course, has become a lightning rod issue on the right, with some groups challenging the practice in court as somehow unconstitutional or enabling of voter fraud. During the pandemic, many states liberalized mail-in voting, allowing anyone who preferred to vote that way to do so rather than the option being available only for those absent on election day. Some states, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, have deliberately moved away from in-person voting and emphasized voting by mail as preferable.

There’s nothing innately concerning about mail-in voting. Those who prefer to steer clear of the in-person polling booths should be allowed — encouraged even — to have their say. But reasonable changes to enable faster counting of ballots in close elections such as the state’s attorney race will promote greater public confidence in the system in this era of distrust in non-partisan institutions.

There are a number of ways to do so. Illinois could require all mail-in ballots to be in hand within a week or less. If worries about relying on the Postal Service for timely delivery are an issue, the state could require mail-in ballots to be postmarked early — say, by a specific date a week or so before Election Day. That’s common elsewhere.

In either case, officials would be able to complete the count much faster than we’ve been seeing here.

Separately, the problems at the Chicago Board of Elections, which has struggled to provide correct information to anxious voters on both sides of the state’s attorney race, are cause to revisit past suggestions to combine the Chicago board with the Cook County Board of Election Commissioners. The Civic Federation suggested merging the two 13 years ago, arguing a combination would save money and reduce confusion.

The performance of both bodies over the past week certainly has sown dubiety. While most of the focus has been on the Chicago board’s miscues, the Cook County board also has provided shifting information on how many ballots it has yet to count.

The county also opted apparently to take the weekend off from counting while the Chicago board, to its credit, kept at the job. Tabulating votes after elections arguably are elections boards’ most important job. Tax advisers don’t take weekends off right before April 15. Nor, for that matter, do political campaigns take weekends off right before elections. Virtually every profession encounters a busy season where 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday standards don’t apply. It’s not too much to ask to keep counting while there are outstanding ballots, especially when a peer board is doing precisely that.

Chicago and Cook County haven’t seen an election this close in recent memory. When the dust settles, let’s take practical steps to bolster public confidence in our elections before the next squeaker comes.

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