Here’s Why Suburban Cook County Lags In Processing Vote-By-Mail Ballots

Statewide, 37% of all vote-by-mail ballots have already been returned. But as of Wednesday, suburban Cook County election officials reported a measly 10% return rate.

Mail-In Ballot
Voters who wish to vote by mail must have their ballot postmarked by Nov. 3 in order for their ballot to be counted. All vote-by-mail applications must be received by a voter’s local election authorities by Oct. 29. Mary Hall / WBEZ
Mail-In Ballot
Voters who wish to vote by mail must have their ballot postmarked by Nov. 3 in order for their ballot to be counted. All vote-by-mail applications must be received by a voter’s local election authorities by Oct. 29. Mary Hall / WBEZ

Here’s Why Suburban Cook County Lags In Processing Vote-By-Mail Ballots

Statewide, 37% of all vote-by-mail ballots have already been returned. But as of Wednesday, suburban Cook County election officials reported a measly 10% return rate.

As Illinoisans navigate voting in the middle of a pandemic, more than 1.3 million ballots have already been submitted either by early voters or those who voted by mail, according to state data.

But suburban Cook County’s election authority seems to be lagging behind the rest of the state in processing its vote-by-mail ballots.

Of the votes already cast ahead of Nov. 3, the State Board of Elections reports 859,090 mail-in ballots were returned as of Wednesday. That accounts for almost 37% of all vote-by-mail ballots requested to date.

The state has recorded more than 505,000 early votes so far, as well.

The numbers underscore the remarkable shift in the way voters are casting their ballot this year as they seek to avoid the potential for long lines at their precinct voting location at a time when people should be social distancing.

One county, however, stands as an outlier in terms of vote-by-mail ballots that have been received.

While the city of Chicago, Will and Kane Counties are all above a 40% return rate as of Wednesday, just 11% of suburban Cook County vote-by-mail ballots have been counted so far, according to state data.

More voters have already submitted their mail-in ballots in DuPage County than Cook, even though less than half as many DuPage voters requested them.

Despite the disparate numbers, a spokeswoman for Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough maintained there is no delay in tabulating vote-by-mail ballots.

Spokeswoman Sally Daly said it simply takes time to cull through the large number of ballots that are coming in.

“There is no delay,” Daly said in a statement. “The process that we utilize takes time to run through all points, which includes putting the ballots through a scanning machine, a sorting machine, and verifying each voter signature.”

Daly said the Cook County clerk is dealing with five times the number of vote-by-mail ballot requests than it saw in the 2016 presidential election. She acknowledged that it has taken longer for the county to process more than 180,000 vote-by-mail applications that were submitted on paper, rather than online.

She also said some of those applications were turned in by third-party political groups on behalf of potential voters.

“Although this is permitted under state statute, it has required more time to process these third-party ballots,” she said.

Daly also said the Cook County Clerk’s office was inundated with about 37,000 voter registration requests coming in at the Oct. 18 deadline. She expected the office to complete its processing of all of those applications by the end of the day Thursday.

If campaigns are concerned about the comparatively low number of vote-by-mail ballots that have been processed in Cook County so far, they’re not showing it.

A spokeswoman for Vote Yes For Fairness, the campaign committee pushing for voters to adopt a graduated income tax system, said their focus is on making sure voters have a plan for how they will cast their ballots.

“Vote Yes For Fairness has confidence that our local election officials throughout the state will work to ensure that all votes are counted in this unprecedented situation,” spokeswoman Lara Sisselman said in a statement.

A spokesman for one of the campaign committees opposing the measure — Coalition To Stop The Proposed Tax Hike Amendment — did not comment.

Voters who wish to vote by mail must have their ballot postmarked by Nov. 3 in order for their ballot to be counted. All vote-by-mail applications must be received by a voter’s local election authorities by Oct. 29.

Vote by mail has been slowly getting more popular with Illinois voters since the 2004 election.

The previous record for the use of vote-by-mail ballots in a general election was in 2018, when 427,495 were cast through the U.S. Postal Service, according to the Illinois Board of Elections. That accounted for 9.2% of all votes.

The number of mail-in ballots cast so far for the November 2020 election has already surpassed that number.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.