Kane County is ready for votes by mail

More than 60,000 Kane County voters have requested mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election, up dramatically from the roughly 10,000 such requests for the 2016 presidential election.

In DuPage County, such requests already have doubled from 32,000 in 2016 to roughly 64,000 for November, and voters may request a vote-by-mail ballot up to five days before the election.

Suburban county clerk offices are responding to the mail-in voting surge by purchasing new mail sorting equipment and printers and hiring temporary staff.

Kane County Clerk John "Jack" Cunningham's office has spent nearly $1 million on new equipment designed to reduce the time it takes to count each ballot, while also taking steps to combat potential fraud and mailing ballots to those who request them.

"It seems to be the trend nationally," Cunningham said of vote-by-mail, pointing to states such as Oregon and Colorado. "We've been looking into this for two years. We hopefully have covered a lot of areas where fraud can happen."

During a tour Monday, Cunningham showed how a $475,000 machine called the "Vantage Sorter" can process 600 ballots per minute, compared to the 15 minutes it would take for a human to open, verify and tabulate each mail-in ballot.

  Hundreds of ballots stream through a new sorter recently acquired by the Kane County Clerk's office to quickly and accurately process mail-in ballots for Nov. 3 election. The sorter is able to verify signatures on the envelopes with current voter roles and then sort the envelopes by precinct before then are opened and counted. Rick West/

As a sealed ballot whisks through the machine, it takes a photo of a voter's signature on the outside envelop and compares it to the signature in the clerk's office's voter registration database. After the signature is verified, the unopened ballot will go to a panel of three election judges, each featuring at least one Democrat and one Republican.

After the panel gives a second-step verification of the signature, the ballot is sent through the machine again where it is opened and then counted, preserving the anonymity of each ballot.

Cunningham's office also spent $475,000 on a machine used to insert each ballot - which also has its own unique bar code - into an envelope to be sent out by mail.

He said his office spent $15,000 on a machine that folds the ballots into an envelope that only costs 50 cents to mail, compared to $1.50 per ballot if it was in a larger envelope.

Officials will learn in October or November if they landed state and federal grants to pay for the equipment.

  Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham talks about some of the changes implemented to process mail-in ballots for Nov. 3 election. See more at Rick West/

President Donald Trump has said the November election will be the most "corrupt" ever. But Cunningham said he has faith in his office's preparations and in the safeguards in place in Kane County.

"We're ahead of every other county in the state of Illinois," Cunningham said. "I'm more worried about human error than voter fraud. The system we have now is more foolproof than any other system in the state."

DuPage Deputy Clerk Adam Johnson said his clerk's office also has purchased new mail-sorting equipment and printers, hired additional temporary staff and mailed vote-by-mail application to every registered voter in the county.

  Raymond Esquivel of the Kane County Clerk's office explains how a new sorter works with mail-in ballots. Rick West/

"The county board has expressed its support for spending up to $3.5 million of CARES Act funds on additional election-related expenses," Johnson wrote in an email. "Additional purchases and expenditures will continue to be made between now and November to ensure the successful administration of the election."

Cunningham's office also is working on a system where voters can track their ballot status online, via email or text messages.

Cunningham said he does not have a completion date, but said it will be done by the election.

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