May 4, 2024

Mail-in Voting Delays in Chicago Primary Could Follow Voters to November

By Sara McNicholas and Esteban Alducin-Borges

Voting booths photo

Increased mail-in and early voting has led to some empty voting booths on Election Day. (Photo/Esteban Alducin)

After a snail-paced voting process, Eileen O’Neill Burke won the Democrat Primary for Cook County State’s Attorney — nearly two weeks after election night. 

The counting process concluded on April 2, the deadline to certify election results. With 25% turnout for Chicago and Cook County, the total votes came to just more than 527,000. O’Neill Burke received  264,428 votes to  Clayton Harris III’s 262,857.

The close race between O’Neill Burke and Harris dragged on as votes were slowly counted due to mail-in ballots still arriving. News organizations called the race on March 29, 10 days after Election Day. Votes continued to be counted until April 2.

With a slow counting process and a two-week deadline, many voters did not get the quick results that they have grown used to, even with voter turnout the second-lowest in 80 years.

Low turnout numbers are something often associated with midterm elections, especially ones with little at stake in the large races, such as the presidential primaries. 

According to University of Illinois Chicago Political Science Professor Evan McKenzie, this is nothing new. 

“[If] the stakes were high for the presidential race, then you’d expect a higher turnout,” McKenzie said. “It’s the top of the ticket that draws the most people in a presidential year.”

This means with the presidential nominees for each major party basically decided, many in Chicago and Cook County opted to sit this race out. Even with low turnout, problems still occurred in the system.

Vote-by-mail ballots were the majority of the votes counted after Election Day, just needing a postmark date of March 19 to be valid. The process moved slowly as mail ballots were received up to April 2 to be counted. 

Timeline: The Cook County State’s Attorney race and mail-in voting

“It’s really more of a 48-hour process,” said Max Bever, the Director of Public Information for the Chicago Board of Elections. “Once we receive a vote-by-mail ballot to the point that it can be run through the ballot counter and ultimately added to those results.” 

Keeping track of how many were left to vote proved difficult when approximately 10,000 ballots were discovered to have been accidentally left out of the official numbers of ballots left to count.

Bever knew that when he misreported the number of votes by mail ballots left to be counted a few days post-election, the situation could cause problems with voters and candidates alike.

“We could see coming out of that situation is that there is no room for human error in modern elections,” Bever said. “There is only room for that to liberate additional conspiracy theories.”

Conspiracy theories abounded on social media platforms such as X/Twitter, but did not affect the election count itself.

The 10,000 ballots were not enough to sway the overall votes for Harris, but the University of Chicago lecturer would have been well within his rights to demand a recount. Instead, he congratulated O’Neill Burke on March 29 as he conceded the race

“I think everyone is satisfied that it wasn’t crooked,” McKenzie said. “There is no real serious claim being made that there was anything wrong with the count.”

Poll watchers confirmed nothing suspicious had happened during the Primary, unlike the 2020 election, which saw numerous violent threats made to election officials over claims of voter fraud> Many of the accusations made during 2020 were related to the validity of mail-in ballots. Donald Trump made many claims leading up to the 2020 election about mail-in ballots that caused voters to doubt their validity. 

“Mail ballots raise certain issues about who filled out the mail ballot — someone’s spouse or next-door neighbor could have filled it out instead of the voter who asked for the ballot,” McKenzie said.  

Chicago voter Helen Saulytis shared her concerns about the election process. 

‘’I still have doubts, because in certain areas, they don’t have [anybody] watching who’s going in or out,’’ Saulytis said.

Many voters, like Saulytis, have issues with the voting system and doubts about the security of elections. 

“There’s always the concern about appearances,” McKenzie said. “About people thinking that something might have been wrong.” 

With voters not knowing the election system and different checks and balances that it has, it can be easy to see fraud where it is not present. Vote-by-mail ballots are often scrutinized, but do have security measures in place to reduce fraud.

“There are many, many layers of state laws when it comes to vote by mail,” Bever said. “On the plus side, that makes it a very secure process, that this is something where voter fraud, you know, does not happen or is extraordinarily rare, both in Illinois and on a country-wide scale.”

Even with doubts about the election system, there are more problems with staffing shortages that could lead voters to deal with longer wait times and overwhelmed polling locations.

Chicago election judges are compensated approximately $170 to $255 on election day, working from 5 am to after polls close at 7 p.m. Their role in the election system is pivotal, Bever said. 

‘‘Election judges are the election,” he said. “We would not be able to have functioning elections in this country without enough election judges. There is so much anxiety as so many different election authorities head in to different elections because it’s harder than ever to recruit election judges.”

With a possible lack of election judges, it could pose more problems for voters. It would further increase the time it would take to count ballots submitted on Election Day. 

“If you don’t have five [election judges] per precinct it’s not going to be a smooth election day for people,” Bever said. “You are not going to get those results transmitted timely at the end of each night, so [they] really are the most important part of our election.”

When voters are not able to vote in a timely manner, it causes problems for the whole system. Saulytis said she has also experienced what it is like for voters at times when polling locations are overwhelmed.

“Usually when you vote it’s crowded, you don’t know where to go,” she said. “I had heart failure and I have a hard time voting so I use a disability mail ballot.” 

So with problems abounding both in and out of the polling places, the November general election may have to deal with the fallout of problems witnessed in the primary. The only way for changes to be made to the system is through the Illinois General Assembly amending the election law code.

Chicago Board of Elections, while the authority that runs the primary and general elections, does not have control over the rules they follow. They obey the Illinois Legislature election laws. 

“We don’t make the law,” Bever said. “And we can’t make new policies. And we can’t just make things up on the fly. We’re under multiple, multiple layers of election law at the state level that we have to follow.”

This means when problems and new situations arise in elections, Chicago and Cook County election officials must follow Illinois law, and those laws are only changed by the legislature. 

“[The Illinois Legislature] may need to create more visibility and more checks and balances to move the needle toward confidence and visibility [in elections],” McKenzie said. 

Under current election law, election officials are unable to count votes until Election Night, creating a buildup of ballots that need to be counted within the two-week deadline. These ballots were the standouts in the O’Neill Burke and Harris race, but this rule could cause problems with counting in November. 

“With Trump spending years on end claiming the election in 2020 was stolen from him, with no evidence,” McKenzie said. “That mindset is out there, floating around.”

Your Thoughts

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