Behind the scenes look at Cook County mail-in ballot processing for 2020 election

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Behind the scenes look at how mail in ballots are processed in Cook County
Important dates to know if you are voting by mail

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Cook County election officials said at least five times as many voters have asked for mail-in ballots than requested them in 2016.

The ballots may be coming in the old fashioned way, by U.S. Mail, but from that point, the system is high-tech, high-security, and there are exceedingly high expectations for a speedy and accurate vote count.

The I-Team went inside the nerve center Tuesday where election authorities try to get a head start on early processing of early voting ballots and vote-by-mail forms to weed out those that may have problems with signatures. The ballots are then put in place so when the polls close, the actual vote count will be correct, and as fast as possible.

In the midst of a pandemic and a chorus of concerns even from President Trump about the integrity of what is increasingly a mail-in election, Cook County officials try to get ahead of a jittery public.

"It's been an unprecedented election and the volume of ballots have been tremendous. Right now we're on pace in the processing of ballots, we have notified nearly 250,000 voters that their mail ballots have been processed," said Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough. "This despite the tremendous challenges that COVID-19 has imposed on all of us, and I mean, all of us. It's clear to me that the voters are not going to allow this virus to suppress their right to vote."

WATCH: Behind the scenes at the USPS ballot processing facility

The ABC7 I-Team went behind the scenes to see how Cook County mail-in ballots for the 2020 election are being processed.

"It took the purchase of a great deal amount of equipment. It could took a great deal amount of brain power," said Cook County Deputy Clerk of Elections Edmund Michalowski.

Despite new equipment, an expanded workforce and attention to detail here, some voters will still not trust that their early ballot will be counted.

"If they don't feel confident and we're not confirming that their ballot has been received, we would advise that they vote on Election Day or at early voting," Michalowski said at press conference Tuesday afternoon.

There are deadlines for voters at this moment, even as election authorities are preparing to count the millions of early votes already in.

In less than 169 hours, the first Illinois votes will be counted. Even though the envelopes containing votes cannot legally be counted until 7 pm on November 3rd, right now they are speeding through an intricate preparation system aimed at making Cook County's returns fast and complete once the polls do close.

The deadline is Thursday, October 29, for requesting a mail-in ballot.

Once you receive the ballot, it can be completed and delivered to drop boxes set up across Illinois cities and counties, or it may be mailed in.

As long as your ballot is postmarked no later than the actual Election Day, Tuesday November 3, then it will be legal.

"We're looking at potentially having several hundred thousand ballots arrive afterwards but the bulk of them will have already been ready to go. That night so we still could have quite a disparity in some of we've got some three statewide races going so if you have half a million vote by mail ballots still outstanding, Matt Dietrich with the Illinois State Board of Elections told the I-Team.

Those ballots can trickle in until November 17, the day that the complete vote count is actually required.