Campaign signs near an early voting site in DuPage County.
What do I do to ensure my vote is counted? Should I vote by mail and avoid the crowds at the polls, or should I vote early, in-person, to make sure my ballot doesn't get lost in the mail? These are questions WBEZ received as part of the Citizens' Agenda — a project in which we focus what people want their local officials and candidates to be talking about for Election 2020.
While Illinois has had both mail-in balloting and early voting options for years, the coronavirus pandemic is leaving voters unsure about the best option for ensuring their vote will be counted this year as election officials across the state prepare for what will likely be a very abnormal election.
Take for example the unusually long lines at the polls on the first day of early voting in Illinois.
Hundreds of people waited in line for more than two hours at the DuPage County Fairgrounds to cast their vote in person. Some carried books, while others carried folding chairs to sit on as the line inched toward the small building that housed the polling booths.
You'd think people would be impatient, frustrated that they'd have to spend their entire afternoon waiting in line to vote. But that was not the case for dozens of voters WBEZ spoke with that Thursday afternoon.
"I think it's just important to get this done," said Barry Merman, who was standing with his wife, Anne. "I think that the concern of what's going to happen if we have delayed mail and voting and some of the issues that have been brought up by the president, and so I figure, vote in person, vote early so we know it's counted, and we don't contribute to this red mirage that might end up happening."
"Well, I thought I would vote early and take off some of the pressure for the officials later on," said Tim Tunlin, who was also waiting in line.
"We want to make sure our vote counts," said Robert Schultz, who said he was worried about doing it by mail. "Also by doing it now, they relieve the polls later on."
Voters wait in line for two hours to cast their vote.
It's a scene that election officials are seeing at early voting sites across the state, even as they process a record number of vote-by mail-ballot requests. According to the state's most recent count, 1.9 million voters in Illinois have requested a mailed ballot ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
But many told WBEZ that despite the availability of mail-in ballots, they're worried about their votes being lost and not counted. So they're showing up in person instead.
In DuPage County, a suburban district north of Chicago, 50% of registered voters have requested a mail-in ballot. That's more than any other county, city or township in the state, according to total collected by the Illinois State Board of Elections. Lake County is in a distant second with nearly 29%.
What are the counties doing to ensure that mail-in ballots, and in-person balloting, is safe and will be counted?
Illinois had been pushing for mail-in voting to lessen stress and crowding on Election Day, Nov. 3, with concerns that going to the polls could put poll workers and voters at risk for COVID-19.
County clerks say they're ready to handle all these mail-in ballots, despite concerns that a flood of them could delay the results of the election for weeks or even months. Some county clerks have hired additional staff and purchased more equipment to process the record number of mailed ballots.
But with national questions about the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service and worries that mail-in ballots might be lost or rejected, many voters told WBEZ they worried still that their mailed ballots would be counted.
Todd Govain handles elections for the Lake County Clerk's Office. He says even though they had four times as many people request mailed ballots than the last presidential election in 2016, early voting appears to be a very popular option.
"Typically on the first day that we can mail ballots out and in-person voting begins, we may have 20 people," Govain said. "But the lines have been long all day."
But as for counting those mail-in ballots, county clerks say voters should not worry. Adam Johnson is a deputy clerk for Dupage County. He says just because this is an abnormal election season with the coronavirus, the process of tabulating ballots is the same it has always been. Illinois has been pushing mail-in voting for years.
Ballots will be scanned and checked as they come in, but won't be tabulated until after the polls close on election night.
And like every election in Illinois, the counts at the end of the night on Nov. 3 will be partial. State law allows for a two-week window for all the ballots that were postmarked by Election Day but arrived after. If more people do end up voting by mail this year, that could mean some delays — and the potential that it could be weeks for final race results. But the votes will be counted, officials say.
"Certainly the first several days after Election Day we expect a lot of ballots to be coming in that were mailed late," Johnson said. "So certainly the results on election night will be partial. There will still be a lot of ballots left to be tabulated and counted."
In-person early voting will begin this Thursday, Oct. 1, in Chicago. The city will have one polling site open at the corner of Clark and Lake in the Loop. Early voting in the wards will start the following week.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.