Your Step By Step Guide To Voting By Mail In The Chicago Area

Confused about voting by mail this year? Answer these five easy questions for a step-by-step guide.

An illustration of a series of questions leading to a step by step voting guide
Paula Friedrich
An illustration of a series of questions leading to a step by step voting guide
Paula Friedrich

Your Step By Step Guide To Voting By Mail In The Chicago Area

Confused about voting by mail this year? Answer these five easy questions for a step-by-step guide.

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There’s been no shortage of news coverage warning that the US Postal Service will not be ready to handle a massive influx of mailed ballots in a year when this low-cost remote option is more important than ever. In Illinois alone, more than 1.8 million voters have already requested a mailed ballot by late September, compared to just 370,000 requests in 2016. 

In May, the Illinois General Assembly passed a new law that made it easier for registered voters statewide to cast ballots from the comfort of their homes. As a result, if you voted at least once in the last two years, you should have already received a letter from your local election authority that included an application to vote by mail.

Ballots have already started going out, as of Sept. 24, to those who have applied. Ballots will be sent out on a rolling basis — the earlier you apply, the sooner it will arrive.

This tool, presented in collaboration with The Chicago Reporter and City Bureau, breaks down the vote by mail application process for residents of Cook and the six collar counties (DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will), based on five easy questions.

(For those who live in downstate Illinois, you will want to file that request early. Many rural election authorities don’t offer the ability to apply online — you will need to print a form, fill it out and mail it in to the address listed. Here’s an example from Cass County.)

The biggest piece of advice from experts that applies to everyone? Apply early. Vote early.

Troubleshooting Vote By Mail:

How do I fill out my ballot?

Your ballot will group all candidates up for consideration by office. Select your candidate by completely filling in the bubble next to your chosen candidate. Do not use a red pen, the scanners can’t read it!

Only select one candidate per office unless the instructions say you can pick more than one. You can also opt to write in a name.

Once the ballot is completed, place it in the official return envelope that came with it and don’t forget to sign the outside of the envelope. Failure to sign it could result in an invalidated ballot. Do not hastily scribble a squiggly line in lieu of your signature, as this signature will be compared to the signature on file with your voter registration. Ballots with signatures that do not match can be invalidated.

What happens if I lose my ballot?

You can request another ballot. You should also contact your local election authority — the phone number or email for your local election official should be on the website or request form. If it gets too close to Election Day, you may go in person to early voting or vote in person on Election Day instead, but you’ll need to fill out an affidavit. So long as the voter’s vote-by-mail ballot did not arrive and get counted, that provisional ballot then will be counted. 

What if it’s late October and I still haven’t gotten my ballot?

The ballots will be mailed out on a rolling basis, so the earlier you request one, the earlier it will arrive. Check your local election authority’s website to see if you can track your ballot request. It’s a new option that may not be available in every county. Consider early voting instead. But note that having asked for a ballot by mail could slow you down at the poll if you go in to vote --- you may have to sign an affidavit.  Some counties have been given the authority to allow drive-up voting, where you don’t have to leave your car. (Note: Given many Chicago voting sites are on high-trafficked commercial streets, it’s unlikely curbside voting will be available in the city.)

What if I get a mail-in ballot but decide I want to vote in person instead?

You can change your mind! It happens. Just please don’t fill out two ballots! The board of elections has a system in place to determine if someone has voted more than once. When you go to vote in person, you’ll be asked to turn in your mail in ballot. If you don’t have it, you may be asked to sign a “cancellation of Vote By Mail ballot affidavit” at your polling site and get a provisional ballot. Your in-person ballot will be voided if you mailed one in. 

What are these “drop boxes” I keep hearing about?

For people who are worried about mailing their ballots, election authorities are setting up secure boxes where voters can insert their signed and completed ballots. In Chicago, they will be located in all early voting sites. All of the collar counties and suburban Cook County are also setting up boxes. 

I got an application to vote by mail from a political group is it legit?

The Chicago Board of Elections says it prefers if you use their form, but other organizations are allowed to send out such forms. If you are using another organization’s form, be sure to mail it in to your local election office. Please make sure the address on the application matches your address (especially the apartment number if you live in a multi-unit building).

Regardless of the form you use, if you live in Chicago, city election officials stress the importance of including your email address. That will help you track the ballot through confirmation emails.

What about fraud? Could my ballot be tampered with?

If you or someone you know has concerns about the legitimacy or safety of the expanded vote-by-mail system, check out this story we did in which experts say our bigger worry should be getting those ballots in on time.

Are you running into problems voting? Send us a note at