Requests for vote-by-mail ballots are at a record high this year in Illinois. As of Thursday, more than 2.2 million residents had requested such a ballot, with 26% of those ballots already returned to their local election authority.
But local election officials around Illinois continue to stress that a safe alternative to turning in vote-by-mail ballots through the mail is dropping your ballot off at a specific drop box — if voters choose not to turn their ballot in through the postal service.
That comes after reports of California Republicans setting up their own drop boxes separate from any election authority and the Texas governor ordering that only one drop box be placed in each county, no matter the population.
While Illinois may not be experiencing anything like Texas or California, voters may not be used to the concept of ballot drop boxes. So, WBEZ is addressing some questions voters may have about this process.
What do drop boxes look like?
Each local election authority in Illinois can decide on the appearance of their own drop boxes, so there isn’t one uniform box for every jurisdiction.
Some look like this below, a box at Lincoln Park High School, but boxes come in many shapes and sizes.
How secure are drop boxes?
Election authorities in the area have stressed the precautions they’ve taken to make the drop boxes tamper proof.
While individual local election authorities (i.e. counties or cities) decide what boxes to use and how to secure them, the Illinois State Board of Elections recommends drop boxes be placed in highly visible areas and locked at all times, with a limited number of people having access to the keys.
An Illinois elections spokesman says many drop boxes in the state were purchased from Vote Armor, which designed the slots where ballots are dropped to be slanted for more protection (so fluids cannot go into the box, for example). It’s a felony to tamper with voting machines or someone’s ballot in Illinois.
In Lake County, each drop box is mounted and under the eye of a security camera. That’s according to County Clerk Robin O’Connor, who said that the office has not encountered any problems with the drop boxes.
“Everything’s been going really smooth,” she said. “We’re really very diligent at keeping things safe and secure.”
A spokesman for the Illinois Board of Elections also said that the state board has received no reports of any problems with drop boxes.
Are there drop boxes at every polling place?
Who decides how many boxes should be set up in any county?
The local election authority, usually the county clerk, determines the number and location for the boxes. This is why there is no uniformity in the network of ballot drop boxes. In some suburban counties, drop boxes are located outside government buildings. In Chicago, for example, election authorities have committed to hosting a ballot drop box at every early voting site. And in Lake County, there are currently five drop box locations, with 17 more to come starting Oct. 19.
When are the drop boxes open?
The hours and days of the week that ballot boxes are accessible vary depending on what jurisdiction you live in. The Illinois State Board of Elections has compiled a list of each jurisdiction’s ballot drop box locations and hours. Chicago’s drop boxes are here.
How often are the ballots retrieved?
According to state statute, election authorities must collect ballots from drop boxes at the close of business each day. Any ballots submitted after the close of business would be dated as being received the next day.
What happens to the ballots once they’re taken out of the boxes?
The local election authority scans and processes the ballot — but they do not tally the actual votes for individual races until polls close on Election Day.
Once a ballot enters the system, Illinois statute states that an election judge or official evaluates the validity of the signature on a mailed ballot with the signature on file for the person’s voter registration. If the signatures match and the ballot is not damaged, it is counted.
If the signatures do not match, however, then the election judge rejects the ballot. The voter then has the chance to make the case for why their ballot should be counted to a panel of three judges, with no more than two of those judges being from the same political party.
Some election authorities, like Chicago, offer a system for you to track this whole process online like a FedEx package. Some counties, like Lake and Cook, have invested in additional ballot sorting equipment to process the unprecedented number of mailed ballots. If your ballot fails the signature test, you can contest it or request a provisional ballot in person.
The process for counting ballots that are either mailed or placed in drop boxes before election day is similar to the process authorities use to count in-person, early voting. They are tallied almost immediately upon the closing of the polls on Election Day.
Can I drop off someone else’s ballot in a ballot drop box (such as my spouse or friend’s ballot)?
Are people really confused about what’s a ballot box, and what isn’t?
It’s unclear if people really are confused, or if there’s fear that people will accidentally drop their ballot into something that looks like a ballot box, but isn’t.
For example, in Chicago, some public libraries have preemptively posted signs on book drop boxes to clarify that voters should not be placing their ballots in the box where library books are returned. A library spokesman told WBEZ that the signs were put up after one person had inquired if they should place their mail-in ballot in the book drop box. Library book drop boxes are not the same as ballot drop boxes.
Do I have to drop my ballot in my own neighborhood or area box? Or can I drop it in any ballot box wherever in the county, state or region?
You should drop your ballot off in your own voting jurisdiction. The Illinois State Board of Elections has a list of drop box locations across the state here. About half of the election authorities in the state established drop boxes, according to a state elections board spokesman.
I asked for a mail-in ballot, but I changed my mind and want to vote in-person. Can I still do that?
Yes. Voters are allowed to take their vote-by-mail ballot to an early voting location or their Election Day precinct location and surrender their ballot there to cast one in-person instead. If you don’t turn in your ballot, however, you’ll be given a “provisional ballot,” which is counted by the 14th day after the election.