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Mailing it in? Sluggish processing of suburban Cook County ballots making it more like vote-by-snail
The rest of the state has a 44% return rate on mail ballots compared to just 11% for suburban Cook County. The city of Chicago is at 43% returned.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mark Brown

More than 225,000 mail ballots from Chicago voters have been returned and processed compared to barely 61,000 from suburban Cook County voters, according to data released Wednesday by state election officials.

That’s despite the fact that more suburban Cook voters have applied to vote by mail than have city voters — 546,656 to 524,451.

The disparity is primarily the result of delays by the Cook County Clerk’s office, which administers suburban voting, in sending ballots to voters.

Opinion

James Nally, a lawyer for the clerk’s election division, said Wednesday that the office has finally cleared its backlog of vote by mail applications and that anyone who has requested a mail ballot should either have received one or soon will.

Yet to be seen is what effect those delays are going to have downstream in the election process as ballots are returned, but it’s plain from the numbers that the clerk’s office has a lot of catching up to do by Nov. 3.

Exclucing suburban Cook County, the rest of the state is reporting a 44% return rate on its mail ballots. That compares to just 11% for suburban Cook County. The city of Chicago is at 43% returned.

Nally said the clerk’s office has a backlog of more than 42,000 mail ballots that have been returned but are not included in the county’s total because they still need to be processed.

He said he expects election workers to process those ballots by the end of the week, pushing Cook County’s total ballots returned above 100,000, which will still be far short of the city’s tally.

“Everybody is working overtime and weekends to catch up on this,” Nally promised.

While conceding that the county missed its legal deadline for mailing out ballots, Nally expressed confidence that everyone will have a fair opportunity to vote and can be assured that their vote will be counted.

I’m not too concerned about that, given the state’s liberal vote-by-mail laws, which allow votes to be counted as long as they are postmarked or placed in an approved dropbox by Election Day — and received by Nov. 17.

That pretty much eliminates slow mail service as a factor. Eventually, every vote should be counted.

I’m more concerned about the uncertainty that could result if we go into Election Night with tens of thousands of mail ballots backed up in processing or in transit because voters didn’t receive them sooner. That could have a big effect on the outcome of the Cook County state’s attorney contest or the judges facing retention, possibly even the constitutional amendment on the graduated income tax.

It also could cause problems on Election Day if those who cast a mail ballot are still waiting to learn whether it was received and accepted.

On top of that, it’s a little disconcerting that these problems occurred in suburban Cook, home to most of the county’s Republican voters.

As I’ve said, Illinois made a sensible move to emphasize mail voting after the coronavirus pandemic threw a pall over the March primary with both poll workers and voters fearing for their health. But everyone is still getting used to it.

Under Illinois law, election authorities are allowed to conduct procedures to determine whether mail ballots have been properly completed as soon as they are received. That includes checking the signature on the ballot envelope to make sure it matches the voter’s registration. Actual tabulation of mail ballots has to wait until Election Day.

City elections officials say they are processing mail ballots as quickly as they are being returned by voters.

So far, the city has rejected 1,001 or less than one-half percent of mail ballots that have been completed while the clerk’s office has rejected 1,721 or about 2.5% of the suburban Cook ballots it has processed.

Nally said he expects half of the rejected ballots will be counted after voters are given an opportunity to fix errors, such as forgetting to sign the ballot envelope.

The clerk’s office has blamed its belated ballot mailings on several factors, including the need to shut down the office for two weeks in August when an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

The county also was overrun with ballot applications submitted on paper, instead of online, which required time-consuming data entry efforts, Nally said.

In-person early voting also has remained popular with 129,385 city voters and 70,799 suburban Cook voters casting ballots through Tuesday.

It’s funny. Here we are voting earlier and earlier, yet the results could come later and later.

 



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