Questionable signatures, mail-in vs. in-person: More than 1,700 McHenry County voters had issues casting ballots

Updated 11/6/2020 9:47 AM

McHenry County voters who may have encountered problems casting their ballot have a narrowing window of time to make sure their votes are counted. Specifically, those who voted by mail have 11 days, and those who voted in person have four days, County Clerk Joe Tirio said.

About 1,711 voters fell into this category as of Wednesday -- a number that potentially could flip three of the tightest races for the McHenry County Board.


"If (a voter) waited until the eleventh hour to return their ballot, then yes, they will be up against deadlines," Tirio said in an interview Wednesday.

"That's why I've always said early," he said in an interview Thursday. "Vote early, mail early, early, early, early."

As of Wednesday, 504 mail-in ballots had been rejected or "challenged" by the McHenry County Clerk's Office, Tirio said. A total of 1,207 provisional in-person ballots were cast this election.

When there is an issue confirming a voter's identity or that they have not already voted, election judges allow them to cast what is called a provisional ballot, meaning it is kept separate from other ballots and will not be counted until the issue is remedied, Tirio said.

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The number of mail-in ballot rejections constantly fluctuates, increasing as new ballots are processed and occasionally rejected and decreasing as voters come into the clerk's office to settle whatever issue prevented their ballot from being cast.

Voters whose ballots have been challenged are notified through the county's ballot tracking website and receive a notice in the mail, Tirio said.

Impacted mail-in voters have until 4:30 p.m. Nov. 17, when the clerk's office closes for the day, to go to the county administration building, at 667 Ware Road in Woodstock, to identify themselves and settle the issue, Tirio said.

In-person voters are notified on site when they are issued a provisional ballot, he said. They, too, must follow up to ensure the issue is settled, but they have until Nov. 10, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.


The majority of rejected mail-in ballots have been challenged because the voter's signature did not match the signature in the clerk's office's records, Tirio said. The second most common reason for mail-in ballot rejections this year is a missing or unsealed certification envelope.

As mail-in ballots are received, they are processed through a large machine that takes a photo of the voter's signature on the exterior of the envelope and then sorts the ballots into organized bundles, Tirio said.

That image is sent to a team of election judges, who compare each voter's signature to past signature data from their voter registration or driver's license.

If an election judge thinks a signature does not match up, they must consult with two other judges, Tirio said. All three take a closer look and must be unanimous in their decision in order to formally reject a ballot.

Election judges are given a few tips and tricks to prepare themselves for this special job, which this year entailed the verification of more than 49,700 signatures, Tirio said.

"Our signatures do change sometimes, but typically the first letter of our names -- first name, last name, middle name -- stay the most consistent," he said. "They also have tools where they can turn (the signatures) upside down, if they want, and not think of it so much as a name but as a collection of curves and lines and dots."

McHenry County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristina Zahorik said she has received calls from voters whose ballots were challenged because their signatures had changed because of an injury or a hand tremor.

The signatures of younger voters also are more likely to be challenged, as they have had less time to practice their signature and therefore may be less consistent, she said.

Tyler Wilke, chairman of the McHenry County GOP, said he has not received word of any issues related to signature verifications this election cycle.

"My hat's off to the clerk's office and all of those election judges that spent the time to go through everything," Wilke said.

With the increase in the number of McHenry County residents who applied for a vote-by-mail ballot this year, a new situation with provisional ballots has arisen, Tirio said.

Back in August, Tirio advised residents to apply for a mail-in ballot as a backup plan so they would have the option of voting by mail or in person as Election Day grew nearer.

That way, if they had received a mail-in ballot but ultimately wanted to vote in person, they could go to an early voting site or to the polls on Election Day and surrender their mail-in ballot to election judges to vote in person instead, he said.

A number of voters who took this advice were given provisional ballots because they failed to bring their mail-in ballot with them when they went to vote, Tirio said. Without surrendering the mail-in ballot, election judges have no way of knowing the person did not vote twice.

This accounted for the majority of the 1,207 provisional ballots issued this year, he said. Most other scenarios center around voter eligibility.

This specific situation can be rectified by the person bringing their mail-in ballot to the clerk's office or mailing it in blank. Otherwise, Tirio said they wait for a period of 14 days and if the person's mail-in ballot is not sent in, then the provisional ballot is cast officially.

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