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Will your mailed-in ballot be counted? We did a test-mailing to see.

A Sun-Times test involving 100 simulated ballots saw just 1 fail to arrive within 2 weeks. But if real-life mail voting goes like that, it still could leave thousands in Chicago disenfranchised.

Chicago’s mail-in voters who don’t hurry to send in their ballots might have something to worry about.

Elections and postal officials say they’re confident that mailed ballots will arrive safely and be counted.

To test whether that confidence is warranted, the Chicago Sun-Times dropped 100 ballot-sized envelopes in mailboxes all around the city, aiming to mimic as closely as possible the mail-in balloting process.

After two weeks, one of the 100 envelopes still hadn’t been delivered. Two weeks is a key measure because the state of Illinois allows mail-in ballots to be counted only if they show up within 14 days of Election Day and, this year, are proven to have been mailed by Nov. 3. Each state has its own deadlines. Some require ballots to arrive by Election Day.

The simulated ballot that never turned up was mailed at 7600 S. Halsted St. in Gresham.

Another envelope, mailed at 2101 N. Western Ave. in Bucktown, got in right at the wire, taking 14 days to arrive downtown.

The other envelopes took two to 13 days to land at a post office box at Federal Plaza, less than half a mile from Board of Elections headquarters.

Another eight of the envelopes, all sent via regular first-class mail, arrived at their destination on time but were missing a dated postmark.

That potentially could be a problem, though the postal service and elections officials say they’re prepared to deal with that possibility and to ensure those ballots get counted. They say they have put safeguards in place including special barcodes on the actual ballot envelopes to track them so there will be proof they were mailed on time even if they lack a dated postmark.

Even if that backup plan works, just the one missing ballot out of the 100 test-mailed — 1% — would equate in Chicago to 4,200 mail-in voters whose votes wouldn’t be counted. That’s based on the 420,000 mail-in ballots requested so far from the Chicago Board of Elections — a record-high demand fed by concerns about voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic and by a big push from politicians for mail-in voting.

And those seemingly few thousands of ballots going uncounted might be enough to sway a tight election.

“Elections are won on very small margins,” says Susan Stokes, founder of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago and founder of Bright Line Watch, an initiative to monitor the strength of U.S. democracy.

Even what are seen as landslide victories can hinge on a margin of only a few percentage points, Stokes says. On the possibility of ballots being lost in the mail, she says, “In some swing states, that could matter quite a lot.”

Susan Stokes.
Susan Stokes.
University of Chicago

In presidential races, Illinois has long voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party’s nominee. But lower-profile races such as those to retain judges attract far smaller numbers of voters. This November, there’s also a hotly contested statewide referendum to shift the state’s flat income tax to a progressive one, with ads that have attracted funding from billionaires on each side.

Elsewhere, in 2016, less than a single percentage point in three battleground states determined the winner of the election that put President Donald J. Trump in the White House: 0.77% in Wisconsin, 0.72% in Pennsylvania and just 0.23% in Michigan.

This year, experts predict that as many as 80 million votes could be cast nationwide by mail. Interest in mail-in voting comes amid not only the pandemic but also as there have been cutbacks and delays at the U.S. Postal Service.

Chicago Board of Elections Commissioner Marisel A. Hernandez says the city agency has been working with the Postal Service to prepare for the expected surge in mailed ballots and has put in place systems to help ensure that all ballots will be counted.

Marisel Hernandez, commissioner of the Chicago Board of Elections.
Marisel Hernandez, commissioner of the Chicago Board of Elections.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Hernandez says the Sun-Times test couldn’t include safeguards such as the “intelligent mail barcodes” unique to each official ballot envelope. These will allow the particular voter who mailed it, as well as Chicago elections officials, to track a ballot’s progress securely online and flag any problems along the way.

Emails will go out to voters when the ballots are mailed to them, when the filled-out ballot is received by the election board and when each voter’s choices are counted, Hernandez says.

“On top of that, we’ll contact voters via email or their phone number if there’s a problem,” she says.

Yessica Zavala, 30, says the tracking option convinced her to vote by mail rather than show up as usual at her polling place in Back of the Yards on Election Day. “That was my biggest worry,” she says, “that my vote was going to be lost.”

Hernandez says voters should feel assured that the mailed-vote process will preserve the privacy of their choices on Election Day: “I want to stress it’s the envelope that will identify the voter, not the ballot.”

Chicago’s ballot envelopes were redesigned repeatedly, including adding a prominent Board of Elections logo, by the time the Postal Service approved of the way they look, Hernandez says. Instead of being processed as first-class mail paid for by a Forever stamp, these barcoded envelopes will get special service.

Postal Service spokesman Timothy Norman wouldn’t agree to an interview or answer questions about the one never-delivered envelope in the Sun-Times test or those missing a postmark.

“Specifically, the team in Chicago has been focused on improving process flows, making sure operational plans are adhered to and that dispatches are on time,” Norman says in an email in response to reporters’ questions. “We are optimistic improvements in delivery will continue. Effective October 1, the Postal Service will engage additional resources, including transportation, as necessary, to help support the timely and expeditious handling of election mail.”

But the American Postal Workers Union remains “absolutely worried about the removal of processing equipment, and we’re also worried about generally overall reduction of hours, work hours,” says Linda Turney, the union’s Chicago-based business manager.

For voters who want to hand in their mail ballots directly and bypass the mail, the elections board will place dozens of no-contact drop boxes across the city by Oct. 14 at all early-voting sites as well as at its headquarters, 69 W. Washington St., and at a number of libraries yet to be announced. Similarly, there will be secure drop boxes in suburban Cook County.

The elections board says it did its own pre-election test-mailing of 200 barcoded ballots in and around Chicago and that all arrived within three days.

It’s unclear whether the 37 Chicagoans whose mailed ballots were sent in on time but somehow didn’t arrive by the deadline of two weeks after the Nov. 3 election could track that via the Chicago Board of Elections tracking system.
Sun-Times reporter Stephanie Zimmermann drops off an envelope in a mailbox at East 57th Street and South Kimbark Avenue as part of the test-mailing.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Trump, himself a longtime mail-ballot voter in Florida, has repeatedly made unfounded claims that voting by mail leads to fraud. But data compiled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports more restrictive voting laws, found that fraud with mailed ballots is almost nonexistent.

Of course, you also could just put on a face mask to protect yourself from the possibility of COVID-19 and vote in person. That’s what Laurice Trotter plans to do at a school around the corner from his Hyde Park home.

“With everything that’s been going on with the mail,” he says, “I would rather just spend that 10 minutes and do it there.”

Some of the test envelopes.
Some of the test envelopes.
Brian Ernst / Sun-Times