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GENEVA – With 85,087 vote-by-mail requests as of Sept. 11 – and more expected by the deadline of Oct. 29 – Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham is far ahead of the eight-ball in election preparedness in response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and intense interest in the Nov. 3 election.
Cunningham bought a machine last year that opens, sorts and validates incoming ballots at the rate of 600 per minute.
“When the ballots come in, it will look at the signature [on the envelope] and look at the signature on record when you registered to vote,” Cunningham said. “It takes a picture of your signature and pulls your signature of record out of the data file. Three [election] judges will be looking at those to make sure [the signatures] are right.”
Raymond Esquivel, the county’s director of elections, pushed a button and the machine roared to life, demonstrating for a reporter and photographer how it will work on Election Day, Nov. 3.
Paper flew by faster than the eye could track. Each piece was slit open and would be filed in trays marked for all of the 291 precincts in the county.
Esquivel gestured to a wall of printers and said they will start printing mail-in ballots Sept. 21 and begin to mail them out Sept. 24.
“This is the election,” Cunningham said.
Automation is key
After the sorting machine does this leg of the work, the election judges are the only ones to handle the mail-in ballots.
They separate the ballots from the signatures on the envelopes so no one knows who voted for who.
The ballots then will be prepared to be tallied – also by automation – on Election Day. The counting cannot legally begin until 7 p.m. that night, when the polls close, Cunningham said.
The first votes to be posted on the clerk’s election results are vote-by-mail and early voting results, he said.
Cunningham bought a machine this year that will fold and seal the envelops for the ballots that go out – also at a rate of 600 per minute – and reduce the $1.50 postage cost to 50 cents on each one.
If 90,000 people request mail-in ballots – and at this rate, Cunningham is sure they will – the machine will save $90,000 in postage.
“It will pay for itself five times in this election,” Cunningham said. “It’s all automated. We’re the only election authority in the state of Illinois that has this.”
Considering that it takes an election judge 15 minutes to open an envelope and process the ballot by hand, Cunningham said he would have needed 20,000 man hours to do it if he had not invested in automation.
“You wouldn’t get the results until February,” Cunningham said.
Both machines cost about $500,000.
He bought last year’s machine with the money he got by selling the Aurora Election Commission equipment when the commission was dissolved and his office absorbed its function.
He expects to recover that cost with CARES Act funds. This year’s machine was covered by CARES Act funds.
The county has 350,000 registered voters, and more applications to vote by mail are coming in every day, Cunningham said.
Even with all the automation, election employees will be working from about 4 a.m. to midnight on Election Day, Esquivel said.
In-person voting safety
As for those who plan to vote in person, Cunningham said each polling place will have multiple precincts. He has a full contingent of 1,500 election judges who will be masked, gloved, gowned and wearing visors.
Cunningham said he even has extra judges who will be on hand to step in if someone cannot work that day.
Judges are paid $200 and an extra $40 for their training, Cunningham said.
“We are … looking at adding another $60, but I’ve not pulled that trigger yet,” Cunningham said. “I can probably cover that cost from the CARES Act package. I’m also trying to save money here as much as I can.”
Cunningham said he has set up 20 people to be sanitation monitors. They will go around all day Nov. 3 and make sure everyone is sanitizing and wearing masks and that the sanitizing stations are full for voters to use.
“We can’t force people to wear masks to vote,” Cunningham said. “What we are doing is putting up signs that say ‘Thank you for wearing masks.’ ”
• The last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot is Oct. 29.
• Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked Nov. 3 or hand-delivered to the clerk’s office on or before Nov. 3.
• Early voting begins Oct. 19.
• Early voting ends Nov. 2, the day before Election Day.• The last day to count votes is Nov. 17.
• The last day to register to vote for this election is Oct. 6. Grace period registration is Oct. 6 to Nov. 3.
Source: Kane County Clerk’s Office