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Will voting by mail be safe and secure this fall? Here's what officials say.
They lay out a series of unprecedented steps being taken for an unprecedented election.

Friday, August 07, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Despite pleas from some state lawmakers to slow down, and threats by President Donald Trump that he might dispute the results—efforts to ensure most Chicago-area residents vote by mail this fall already are cranked up in high gear, both in the city and the suburbs.

But will that process be secure and safe from fraud? Will local election authorities be able to avoid the huge problems that delayed final vote counts for well over a month in New York?

After talking at length to the three offices here with the most influence—the Chicago Board of Elections, and the Cook and DuPage county clerks—my answer is a guarded yes.

Each jurisdiction is handling things in a slightly different way, and the unprecedented tidal wave of mail ballots will test local electoral systems in a way they’ve never before been tested. But equally unprecedented are the types of actions being taken, from redesigning envelops with the U.S. Postal Service and assigning each ballot envelope a unique bar code tracker, to assigning guard to secure scores of ballot drop boxes and notifying voters by email and phone when their ballot has been received, processed and cast.

“We started our buildout process in March, the day after the primary. We think it will work,” says Ed Michalowski, who’s in charge of elections for Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough,

“I believe we’ll be able to get this job done,” says DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek. “We’re very confident.”

The message from them and the Chicago Board of Elections is the same: Things should work.

But, to avoid problems, voters should apply for a mail ballot now—more than 400,000 people in the three jurisdictions already have do so. They'll be mailed to voters at the end of September. And get them back as soon as possible, so as not to swamp the post office.

That means politicians ought to be in high gear already, because a large portion of the vote will occur in early October, not on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Not everyone is convinced this is going to come off as it should.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, who served as point man for Republicans when the General Assembly took up expanded mail-balloting legislation this spring, is particularly concerned about automatically sending mail-in ballot applications to people who may have moved, something he fears could result in multiple votes by the same person. Some jurisdictions are better than others at periodically scrubbing their registration rolls of such cases, he says.

Butler also told me he’s worried about unsecured drop boxes, fearing they could end up being depositories for votes illegally “harvested” by unscrupulous political operatives.

I asked the election officials about that and their overall preparations. Here’s what they said:

In suburban Cook, where the vote is conducted by the county clerk’s office, Michalowski said anyone who applies for a mail ballot will get one with a pre-stamped envelope. If they apply online, the ballot envelope will come with a unique bar code tracker linked to the applicant’s email or cellphone, so they know when their ballot has been accepted and processed.

When the ballot arrives at the clerk’s office, the voter's signature will be examined by three-person, bipartisan teams of election judges. If all three judges consider the signature invalid, the applicant will be notified within 48 hours and given a chance to respond and provide a replacement signature.

For those who don’t trust the mail, the county will have drop boxes in each of its 53 early voting sites, as well as a large site being set up at Union Station, Michalowski said. The county also hopes to have drop boxes in some other downtown Metra stations. Each drop box will have an attendant, who will check IDs. Anyone dropping off more than one ballot—say, for their spouse or a friend—will be required to produce a signed affidavit authorizing such an action.

Otherwise, ballots returned by mail will be reviewed and processed every day, Michalowski said, though no ballots will be counted until after the polls close on election night. Most of the processing will be handled at a new supplemental facility the county has opened up in Cicero.

As occurred this spring, ballots will be counted even if they arrive after election day, so long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3. If a ballot comes without a postmark, the day it was signed will be determinative.

One other thing: Computer images of the ballot will be retained at every stage of processing, Michalowski said. And ballots will go to all active voters, those who remained on the polling list after the county’s canvass last fall.

Chicago’s procedures will be similar, but amplified.

According to Chicago Board of Election Commissioners Chair Marisel Hernandez, steps her agency has taken include working with postal officials to redesign the return envelope, making it easier to process and hopefully cutting potential delays.

Applications the board already has mailed to 1.6 million registered city voters will be non-forwardable. The board is working with a consortium of 30 states to catch and weed out outdated registrations for people who have moved. When someone’s mail ballot is received, board records will be automatically updated so the same person cannot show up at a polling place on Election Day and vote again. And the board also will use a bar code tracking system.

The Chicago Board of Elections will not require anyone depositing a ballot in a drop box to show ID, fearing that could be illegal. But all boxes will be inside early-voting sites beginning on Oct. 14 and all ballots will be immediately time and location stamped before deposit.

“We are taking as many precautions as possible,” says Hernandez. “We’ve had a lot of experience with mail voting in recent years. We’ve tried to think of everything we can to deal with the situation.”

Procedures will be similar in DuPage, according to Kaczmarek.

Applications already have been sent to 617,000 people, all of those who are currently registered in the county. DuPage is not using bar codes, but those who apply for a mail ballot will be given the option to sign up for a notification system that will ping the users’ email or cell when a ballot has been received. The county will have drop boxes at its administrative center, either located inside or outside in areas that are well-lit 24 hours a day, and will be emptied each day, Kaczmarek said.

All of three jurisdictions told me they intend to have their usual number of precinct polling places open, despite concerns about a lack of judges due to COVID-19. Since Election Day will be a government holiday for the first time this year, you can expect more of them to be in government buildings than usual.

Will it work? I’ll leave discussion of any possible hacking for another day. Meantime, this is what local election officials are saying. Hopefully, they’re right.



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