Frerichs' bill to help absentee voters passes

By Kate Clements
Published May 9th 2007 in The News-Gazette (IL)
SPRINGFIELD � The Illinois Senate on Tuesday passed legislation to help make sure Illinois voters who are out of the country for military, personal or business reasons can have a say in local elections.

SB 439, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Gifford, would allow cities to use special ranked ballots for overseas absentee voters in municipal and township elections.

While there is plenty of time between the statewide primary and general elections, voting rights advocates said there was not enough time between the February and April local election dates to determine the primary winners, certify a general election ballot, print and mail the absentee ballot overseas, and get the marked ballot back by mail in time to be counted.

"Those voters are basically disenfranchised because it's an administrative impossibility," said Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a lobbyist for Fair Vote.

Frerichs said his bill could put an end to that problem by allowing election authorities to send overseas absentee voters two ballots at the same time.

The first would be a regular absentee ballot for the primary election. The second would be a special ballot allowing voters to rank all of the candidates in each race in order of preference. If the highest-ranked candidate made it out of the primary, that person would be counted as the voter's general election choice. If not, election authorities would count the next-highest ranked candidate to have advanced.

"A ranked ballot system could solve the time constraint issue that is keeping our overseas servicemen and women from getting and returning their ballots on time," Frerichs said. "This is an innovative solution that allows all voices to be heard in the local voting process regardless of their location."

Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina already have ranked voting for military and overseas voters, and a referendum to adopt the system in Springfield was approved by more than 90 percent of that city's voters last month. If Frerichs' bill becomes law, Illinois municipalities would be able to make the switch by ordinance rather than referendum.

State Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, called the bill "an excellent idea," and the measure was approved unanimously.

To become law, it still needs approval from the House and Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"If enacted, this legislation will end the practice of overseas voters losing their right to participate in local elections," Johnson-Weinberger said.