Hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots requested by suburban voters

Hundreds of thousands of suburban voters have requested mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 presidential election, with more applications pouring in daily as local election authorities prepare for an anticipated surge.

An expansion of Illinois' vote-by-mail program amid the coronavirus pandemic has prompted Cook and the collar counties to hire extra employees, install new equipment and increase the efficiency of printing, sorting and processing mail-in ballots.

But with the influx of ballots expected to roll in through the Postal Service, and uncertainty over when they'll be received, officials warn it could be days - or even weeks - after Election Day before winners can be definitively declared.

  DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek looks over a new machine that sorts mail-in ballots and authenticates signatures to increase the efficiency of processing ballots. Paul Valade/

"Election night isn't going to be the thing it was in the past," McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio said.

The influx

Already, the applications submitted in the suburbs have significantly surpassed any previous election - and the numbers keep climbing. Ballots will start being mailed out Sept. 24, at which point election authorities have a crucial message for voters: return your ballots as early as possible.

"We are working diligently to make sure we're prepared to handle ... a very significant increase," said Adam Johnson, chief deputy county clerk for DuPage County, where more than 117,000 of 615,000 registered voters have requested mail-in ballots. "Avoiding a last-minute rush is key to making sure there's sufficient capacity to handle the volume."

In suburban Cook County, nearly 240,000 of the roughly 1.6 million registered voters have applied to vote by mail so far, more than doubling the number of mail-in ballots cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election, said Edmund Michalowski, deputy clerk of elections. In 2016, roughly 31,000 voters sent in ballots by mail.

  A mail-in ballot drop box has been installed in front of the McHenry County administration building in Woodstock as an alternative to sending ballots in the mail. John Starks/

In Kane County, the number of applications has exceeded 77,000, officials reported, and Will County reached 82,000 by the end of the week. McHenry County has received about 36,600 requests, while Lake County processed at least 60,350, with piles of applications still unopened.

The influx doesn't come as a surprise to election authorities, who say they fully expected to shift gears and beef up their resources once the pandemic hit. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in June ramping up vote-by-mail options and requiring agencies to send mail-in ballot applications to voters who participated in any of the last three elections, though some counties expanded that effort to all registered voters.

Emergency funding was distributed through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to ensure election officials could buy the machinery, hire the additional personnel and secure the extra space necessary to handle the expanded program. Special sorting software and equipment purchased in DuPage County, for example, can process 18,000 envelopes per hour and allows for easier signature verification by election judges, County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said.

  A camera is used to help authenticate signatures on mail-in ballots. The new equipment was purchased by the DuPage County clerk's office in anticipation of a surge in mail-in voting for the Nov. 3 election. Paul Valade/

For the Cook County Clerk's office, developing a strategy started shortly after the March primary when the state's stay-at-home order took effect, Michalowski said.

"We anticipated from that very moment that we needed to increase our capacity - and the ability for us to social distance - both on managing applications and mail-in ballot processing," he said. "We've done our best to make certain that the system is going to run fluidly."

Preparing for unknowns

Election authorities realize they're navigating uncharted waters.

As is always the case, mail-in ballots can be sorted and validated ahead of time, but results can't start being tabulated until the polls close on Election Day. But Johnson says greater uncertainty lies in an anticipated onslaught of mail-in votes that likely won't be received until days or weeks later, potentially changing the results reported on election night.

"There certainly could be the case that someone who is ahead on Election Day ends up behind once all the ballots come in over the next two weeks," he said.

  A new ballot sorter is among the equipment recently acquired by the Kane County clerk's office to quickly and accurately process mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election. Rick West/

State law gives voters up to five days before the election to request a mail-in ballot, though officials say that's cutting it close. Mailed ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 3 and received within 14 days to be counted in final tallies, which then must be certified.

"The key to making certain that you have sufficient time to receive a ballot and get it returned to the county clerk's office is to request one now and fill it out early," said Charles Pelkie, chief of staff at the Will County Clerk's office. "Don't let it sit on your countertop."

Election authorities also are working to combat what they say is a false rhetoric at the national level. Claims that increased mail-in voting will lead to corruption or security issues, paired with a mounting distrust in the U.S. Postal Service to handle the surge of ballots, are unfounded and unjustified, Michalowski said.

  Kane County mail-in ballots are now folded smaller, resulting in smaller envelopes and a lower mailing cost. Rick West/

Systems are in place to track the activity of voters and ensure nobody is able to cast more than one ballot, regardless of whether it's done by mail or in person, he said. If someone submits a vote-by-mail ballot, for example, that information is updated under their name, and the system will not allow another ballot from that person to be tallied.

County clerks' offices have been working closely with their regional and local post offices, officials said, and dozens of secure drop boxes are being installed throughout the suburbs as an alternative to dropping ballots in the mail. Most agencies also have developed a system allowing voters to track their mail-in ballots and applications.

"I think there's just an uncomfortable silence that people feel when they drop the ballot in the post office, and it's not helped when there's all this national attention inappropriately (asserting) that there's going to be fraud or manipulation," Michalowski said. "I simply don't see those issues."

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