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Count on future mail voting — even if hundreds of thousands of ballots are still being counted

The betting is that voting by mail is here to stay after some 1.9 million Illinois voters chose that method to cast their ballots in 2020, more than five times the number who did so four years ago. 

Trinity Dishmon takes a selfie with her mail-in ballot at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Chicago last month.
Trinity Dishmon takes a selfie with her mail-in ballot before dropping it off at an early voting polling site at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Chicago last month.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

We’re a week past the election, and more than 200,000 votes remain to be counted in Cook County, mostly mail ballots from suburban voters.

Luckily, there are only a few close contests waiting on the outcome, none of the top ballot races being among them.

But even as the counting continues, it’s not too soon to ask:

Was this election with its emphasis on expanded voting by mail a temporary pandemic year oddity or a peek into the future?

The betting is that voting by mail is here to stay after some 1.9 million Illinois voters chose that method to cast their ballots in 2020, more than five times the number who did so four years ago.

Local election officials say voting from home has proven generally popular with the people who tried it, even if it has created new challenges for election administrators and caused delays in the reporting of results — not to mention really irritated the soon-to-be former President of the United States.

Most of those who voted by mail did so because they thought it would be the safest way to cast a ballot amid the threat of possibly contracting COVID-19 at their polling place.

A polling place at the Jonathan Burr Elementary School in the Bucktown neighborhood on Election Day.
A polling place at the Jonathan Burr Elementary School in the Bucktown neighborhood on Election Day.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

But many of them are expected to make it a habit in the future after having seen the virtue of leisurely filling out a ballot in the comfort of their own home.

We’ve had vote by mail in the state for a decade now, but in reaction to the coronavirus, lawmakers enacted temporary provisions for this year that made it easier: requiring election authorities to send ballot applications to everyone who had voted in the past two years and allowing for secure dropboxes to collect the votes.

Those provisions sunset at the end of the year, meaning legislators will have to revisit the issue before the next election if they want them to be made permanent.

Among those who hope they will do so is Marisel Hernandez, chairwoman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

“I think it was very successful,” Hernandez said of the shift to voting by mail, which earned the board high marks for its timely communication with voters about the status of their ballots.

Marisel Hernandez, chair of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Marisel Hernandez, chair of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times file

State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, chief architect of the temporary voting legislation, said she is waiting for election administrators to wrap up their work before inquiring more closely about their experiences but expects more mail voting to be the “wave of the future.”

“The sheer number of voters tells us this is something people liked,” Morrison said.

I stuck with in-person early voting this year, but having been present when my wife filled out her mail ballot, I can definitely see the advantages. Beyond the convenience, she could trash talk the candidates aloud as she voted. It seemed a lot more fun.

But I do worry about the delay in counting the votes, which would be the cause of considerably more angst right now if we had a close statewide race.

As of Tuesday, the Cook County clerk’s office was reporting it had 165,554 mail ballots remaining to be counted from suburban voters, while Chicago election authorities by the day’s end were reporting 23,402 uncounted mail ballots from city voters.

In addition, the county reported 27,073 provisional ballots yet to be processed and the city 9,105.

Hernandez said the city should be “fully caught up” on counting mail ballots by the end of Wednesday, while county officials said they expect to clear their backlog by the weekend.

County Clerk Karen Yarbrough said she’s satisfied with the pace of the counting and is more concerned about making sure every vote is counted.

“We’re just going to have to get used to another paradigm,” Yarbrough said, referring to the expectation in recent years that most winners will be known within hours of the polls closing.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough speaks during a news conference at the Cook County Clerk Election Operation Centerin Cicero last month.
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough speaks during a news conference at the Cook County Clerk Election Operation Centerin Cicero last month.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Although voters may not realize it, there’s always counting to be completed in the two weeks after an election, just usually not this many votes.

Mail-in ballots are more labor intensive and therefore take longer to process. Under Illinois law, mail ballots can be counted until Nov. 17 as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3.

Data provided by city election officials shows that nearly all mail ballots arrived back within the first three days after the election and since then have slowed to a trickle.

For anyone casting envious looks at those Houston voters who were allowed to try drive-up voting this year, don’t get your hopes up. None of the officials with whom I spoke expect anything like that in the near future.