How more than 500K outstanding mail-in ballots could affect election results in the suburbs

  • Election precinct committeeman Keith Marvin of Hanover Park sorts ballots that have already been processed last week at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton. Each ballot goes through many steps before it is counted after the polls close Tuesday.

      Election precinct committeeman Keith Marvin of Hanover Park sorts ballots that have already been processed last week at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton. Each ballot goes through many steps before it is counted after the polls close Tuesday. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Election officials sort mail-in ballots last week at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton. More than 140,000 mail-in ballots had been cast in DuPage County as of Friday.

      Election officials sort mail-in ballots last week at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton. More than 140,000 mail-in ballots had been cast in DuPage County as of Friday. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • After ballots are counted by a machine, they are sorted again and boxed to be kept for 22 months at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton, election officials said.

      After ballots are counted by a machine, they are sorted again and boxed to be kept for 22 months at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton, election officials said. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Election officials sort mail-in ballots Wednesday in an auditorium at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton.

      Election officials sort mail-in ballots Wednesday in an auditorium at the DuPage County clerk's office in Wheaton. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/31/2020 5:12 PM

Nearly 1.5 million suburban voters have already cast their ballots ahead of Tuesday's presidential election, accounting for almost half the state's record-shattering advance vote counts, election officials said.

As of Friday, just under 700,000 of those ballots were submitted via a secure drop box or delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections. That leaves 525,162 mail-in ballots that were sent out to voters but have not yet been returned in suburban Cook and the collar counties.

 

There's no way of knowing how many of those ballots will actually be cast, or whether they will arrive before or after Election Day. There's no way to tell, at this point, how great an impact outstanding mail-in ballots could have on a particular race, or how frequently results could flip before tallies are considered final on Nov. 17.

That level of uncertainty indicates this year's election night will be unlike any other, said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

"We have no precedent for voting during a pandemic," he said.

Bridging the gap

Voting by mail is not a new concept in Illinois. For the last decade, any registered voter could apply for and cast a mail-in ballot as long as it's postmarked by Election Day and received by election authorities within 14 days.

But the COVID-19 crisis has prompted a shift in voting patterns and a statewide expansion of the vote-by-mail program, resulting in a higher number of possible ballots that could roll in after the polls close Tuesday.

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The next couple of days are critical in determining how complete the results might be on election night, Dietrich said.

Early vote counts typically spike the week before the election, he said, and vote-by-mail ballots are likely to be returned in greater waves, potentially narrowing the gap between those requested and returned.

Still, some races could be impossible to call on election night if the number of outstanding mail-in ballots outweighs the margin of victory, Dietrich said. That could be particularly common in smaller state legislative or county races, where candidates are often separated by thousands -- or even hundreds -- of votes.

In the 2018 state House District 61 race, Democrat Joyce Mason of Gurnee ousted Republican incumbent Sheri Jesiel by 1,226 votes. Jesiel had been in the lead until the early and mail-in ballots were counted after Election Day votes.

This election cycle, Mason is facing a challenge from Antioch Republican Dan Yost. Data provided last week by the Lake County clerk's office showed 16,305 of the 35,948 mail-in ballots requested by 61st District constituents had yet to be returned.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

According to the State Board of Elections, 101,163 total mail-in ballots could still be in the hands of Lake County voters as of Friday. The preelection counts show 294,013 outstanding vote-by-mail ballots in suburban Cook County, as well as 71,688 in DuPage, 18,534 in Kane, 22,850 in McHenry and 36,914 in Will.

"Regardless of where they're getting their election news, (constituents will have to) be aware that there are a certain number of vote-by-mail ballots that are still in the hands of voters that could still arrive and be voted after Election Day," Dietrich said. "The vote totals they see could change statewide."

New patterns emerge

In the 2016 presidential election, roughly 370,000 total mail-in ballots were cast in Illinois, accounting for about 6.5% of the vote, Dietrich said.

Days ahead of this year's election, statewide counts show more than 1.5 million residents have voted by mail, with an additional 831,000 ballots that could potentially be returned.

"We are just leaps and bounds ahead," Dietrich said.

The influx of mail-in ballots isn't a surprise to election authorities, who started developing plans to hire additional staff members, install new equipment and beef up their resources once the pandemic hit. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in June ramping up the state's vote-by-mail program, and emergency funding was distributed to ensure election authorities could handle the surge.

Though mail-in ballots can be processed and verified ahead of time in Illinois, they can't be tabulated until the polls close on Election Day.

A breakdown of vote-by-mail data provided by DuPage, Lake and suburban Cook counties suggests that the method of voting may be more popular among voters who pulled a Democratic ballot in the primary than those who cast GOP ballots.

In DuPage, for example, 60,083 Democrats returned mail-in ballots as of last week compared to 24,672 Republicans, based on how they voted in their most recent primary. The data also shows 42,819 mail-in ballots cast by voters who are nonpartisan or have not voted in a primary.

Illinois voters do not register as a member of a political party. And historically, results have shown that voters don't "stay in their lane" based on the ballot they pull in the primary, DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said.

But DuPage County Republican Party Chairman Jim Zay acknowledged that Democratic voters seem to be more comfortable casting their ballots by mail, while members of the GOP prefer voting in person. Though President Donald Trump's criticism of the vote-by-mail program could contribute to that trend, he said, he believes many Republican voters simply "feel it's part of their civic duty to get up on Election Day and go to the polling place."

The vote-by-mail patterns don't come as a surprise to Zay, who said he thinks Republicans could outpace Democrats in other voting methods.

"It's a three-pronged effect," he said. "We see it coming back around with early voting and on Election Day."

Turnout

The state recently recorded its highest number of registered voters in history: 8.3 million and counting, Dietrich said.

Presidential elections over the last 40 years have yielded an average voter turnout of 70% to 75% in Illinois. If the 2020 election cycle follows that pattern, early and mail-in ballots cast so far would make up about half the total number of votes anticipated, he said.

More than 3 million Illinoisans have voted as of Friday, split almost evenly between early and mail-in votes. Even without counting the ballots cast this weekend -- usually a popular time for advance voting -- that number already soars past the nearly 1.9 million early and mail-in votes recorded in 2016, Dietrich said.

But with the COVID-19 crisis bucking previous trends, election officials are unsure what kind of turnout they'll see at the polls Tuesday.

"The question is, with this huge increase in pre-Election Day voting ... is the amount of in-person voting on Election Day going to make up the difference to get us up to 75%?" Dietrich said. "Or have a significant number of voters who traditionally vote on Election Day decided to vote by mail or vote early?"

Suburban voters are encouraged to return their mail-in ballots as soon as possible by dropping them in the mailbox or at one of their county's secure drop box locations. Those who requested a mailed ballot and decide to vote in person can bring the ballot to an early or Election Day polling place and surrender it to election judges.

Polls close at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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