Why it could take days or weeks to know election results

  • A long line of early voters wraps around a building Friday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton.

      A long line of early voters wraps around a building Friday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Early voters cast ballots Friday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton.

      Early voters cast ballots Friday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • DuPage County will operate one early voting site until Oct. 19. Then, early voting expands to 18 sites.

      DuPage County will operate one early voting site until Oct. 19. Then, early voting expands to 18 sites. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/7/2020 9:01 AM

The phones at the Lake County clerk's office were ringing off the hook after the first presidential debate in which President Donald Trump repeated unfounded claims of voter fraud and issues related to mail-in ballots.

The dissemination of misinformation is confusing for voters, especially during a time of heightened emotion and concern surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Deputy County Clerk Todd Govain said. Suburban election authorities have been doing their best to debunk falsehoods and clarify Illinois voting laws as they prepare for an election unlike any other.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But one point raised during the debate rings true and has solicited a disclaimer from some local county clerk's offices: Do not expect definitive results on election night.

Election workers sanitize and clean areas Friday as early voters complete their ballots at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton.
  Election workers sanitize and clean areas Friday as early voters complete their ballots at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

A record number of vote-by-mail requests won't necessarily alter day-of procedures, officials say, but it does mean a possible influx of ballots on or after Election Day. More than 2 million Illinois voters have applied for mailed ballots, and more than 107,000 people already have cast early votes statewide.

While it likely won't take months to record tallies, as suggested by Trump, it could be weeks before candidates in tight races know for sure whether they've won.

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"This is going to be higher turnout, probably, than any election we've seen historically. Where we're going to find that turnout -- whether at the polling place or at the mailbox -- is hard to predict," McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio said. "The outcome of that is really what tells us how much information we're going to have on election night."

Election results

Once polls close Nov. 3 in suburban Cook and the collar counties, early votes will be tabulated, as will the mail-in ballots that have already been received and processed by Election Day. Those ballots will be reflected in the results posted online that night.

Early voting and vote-by-mail ballots that arrive by the morning of Nov. 3 will be reflected first in the results posted online election night.
  Early voting and vote-by-mail ballots that arrive by the morning of Nov. 3 will be reflected first in the results posted online election night. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Election authorities urge voters to apply for and return their mailed ballots promptly if they want their votes included in the election night results.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Election night sort of has that magic to it. Everyone wants their vote to count," said Edmund Michalowski, deputy clerk of elections in suburban Cook County. "We should be able to maintain a heavy processing load, so we're hoping to have cleared most of the ballots that come in pre-Election Day so they will count and be tallied (when polls close)."

County clerks also are bracing for the number of outstanding ballots not yet received by Election Day. Though it must be postmarked no later than Nov. 3, any valid vote-by-mail ballot that arrives within the next 14 days must be counted in final tallies.

"That's where people are going to be sweating," Tirio said.

To handle the surge before and after the election, county clerk's offices have hired additional personnel, installed new equipment and secured extra space to increase the speed and efficiency at which mail-in ballots can be processed while adhering to social distancing.

Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham, right, on Tuesday talks about the automation he brought in to the clerk's office to process mail-in ballots. Supervisor of Elections Fabian Franco, left, demonstrates a sorting machine that checks signatures as mail-in ballots go through.
  Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham, right, on Tuesday talks about the automation he brought in to the clerk's office to process mail-in ballots. Supervisor of Elections Fabian Franco, left, demonstrates a sorting machine that checks signatures as mail-in ballots go through. - Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

In DuPage County, 181,422 registered voters have requested to vote by mail. Election officials are using an entire auditorium in the county government complex in Wheaton instead of just a portion of it for scanning mailed ballots. They're also using more space in a basement for vote-by-mail verification and sorting.

"We will be re-evaluating our space as the election progresses," County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said.

As more mail-in ballots roll in after Nov. 3, Michalowski said, Cook County expects to update tallies at least daily before the 14-day limit, at which point the results must be certified. But other agencies anticipate providing less frequent updates.

Lake County plans to wait until the 14th day to update the totals, in order to ensure voter privacy, Govain said, though a seven-day update might be considered if the influx of mail-in and provisional ballots recorded after Election Day is large enough. Those votes could very well change the outcome of a race, as has happened in previous elections, he said.

"We value accuracy over speed," Kaczmarek said. "With the expansion of vote-by-mail nationwide, the public must realize that results in some close races could flip during the 14-day certification period following Election Day."

Mail-in vote process

Mailed ballots that voters have started to return to election authorities take longer to process than in-person ballots.

Teams of election judges will verify signatures on outer envelopes against those on record on the first pass through a mail sorter. Images of signatures are shown on large monitors. Any ballot envelopes with issues are set to one side for notification to voters to remedy.

Early voters cast their ballots Friday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton.
  Early voters cast their ballots Friday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Then, the approved ballots are opened and sorted on the second pass through the mail sorter, Kaczmarek said. An election judge removes the ballot from the envelope in the presence of another judge, and the ballot is quickly inspected to make sure it can be read by the scanner.

Ballots are sealed and securely stored in batches and fed into a scanner at a later time. Representatives of both political parties are present during that process.

Confidence in mail

Illinois was one of many states to expand its vote-by-mail program because of the coronavirus pandemic. County clerks have turned the mailing of ballots into photo ops to reassure voters worried about security issues and the U.S. Postal Service's ability to handle the surge.

"To show my confidence, I'm going to be voting by mail," Tirio said. "In Illinois, we have a pretty good process for making sure it's done right."

Claims of widespread voter fraud in mail-in voting have been unfounded, local officials said.

"Misinformation is rampant," Michalowski said. "When you're looking for advice on election matters, we're really asking people to turn to their election authority as a trusted source."

Counties started sending out mail-in ballots Sept. 24. Voters should apply now and return their ballots right away, Kaczmarek said.

The post office has delivered the first 150,000-plus ballots in a "timely way" to DuPage voters, she said.

"So that means everything is working," she said. "Ballots returned through the mail in the first three weeks of October should be delivered to us in plenty of time."

Voters also can bring ballots to a secure drop box. Or those who prefer to cast their ballots in person can avoid Election Day crowds by voting early, though some counties already have seen long lines.

Chuck Pelkie, chief of staff to Will County Clerk Lauren Staley Ferry, said last week roughly 20% to 25% of early voters so far are those who changed their minds and opted to vote in person instead of by mail.

"We will divert resources if necessary to enable voters to move quickly through the process," he said.

The best way to vote in person if you requested a mailed ballot is to bring it with you to a polling place and surrender it to election judges.

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