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Why some Cook County voters are still waiting for mail-in ballots

Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Daily Herald
by Lauren Rohr

An onslaught of paper vote-by-mail applications in suburban Cook County may be the cause of weekslong delays experienced by voters who have not yet received their ballots, election officials said.

Roughly 180,000 of the more than 510,000 mail-in ballot requests submitted to the Cook County clerk's office so far have been in paper form, requiring more time and manpower to process than online applications, Deputy Clerk of Elections Edmund Michalowski said.

The sheer volume of applications returned, coupled with inconsistencies in the forms and a temporary office shutdown, resulted in delays in getting blank ballots in the mail, he said.

In turn, some voters who applied as early as late August still could be without their mail-in ballots just two weeks before the Nov. 3 election. But Michalowski said they won't have to wait much longer.

As of Monday, he said, the clerk's office is caught up on verifying and entering data for outstanding paper ballots, roughly 30,000 of which have been processed since late last week. Batches of mail-in ballots are expected to be printed and sent out this week, leaving only day-to-day volumes to be processed moving forward.

"We just had an ungodly amount of mail applications in paper for mail ballots, and the problem with that is they're all incongruent," Michalowski said. "It's really tedious."

For the requests trickling in now, he said, voters can expect a seven- to 10-day turnaround time before their ballots are delivered.

The agency never experienced a backlog of online applications, which offers a faster and more automated process, he said.

The paper applications returned to the clerk's office range from those distributed by the election authority to those sent out by third-party organizations and political groups. Though permitted by state statute, the variation in forms has partially contributed to the delays, Michalowski said.

The office also had to shut down this summer for two weeks due to COVID-19 cases among staff members, he said.

The clerk's office has since increased data entry resources, and employees have been working mandatory overtime to process the record number of applications they've received to date, which is more than five times the total requests received ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Michalowski said.

Cook County received a bulk of applications before Sept. 24, when election authorities statewide could begin mailing out ballots, and saw another surge within the last week, Michalowski said. Large groups of voters who submitted paper requests should see their ballots' statuses updated on the election website within the next few days to signify that it is en route, he said.

Once the ballot is returned to the clerk's office, employees will process and verify the ballot before notifying the voter that it was received.

More than 27,000 mail-in ballots already have been submitted in suburban Cook County, and 11,900 residents have voted early in person as of Monday morning, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Other local election authorities, including in Kane, DuPage and McHenry counties, have not reported significant delays in vote-by-mail processes, but they've warned voters against procrastinating. More than 1.1 million voters in suburban Cook and the collar counties have requested mail-in ballots, accounting for roughly half the applications received statewide.

The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is Oct. 29, though election authorities urge voters to submit their requests much sooner to ensure their ballots arrive in time. Ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and arrive within 14 days to be counted.



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