It may have taken days for America to find out who won the presidential election and a few senate races, and there are legal battles over some results, but tabulating the vote was much easier in Monroe County.
“I think the election went really well,” Monroe County Clerk Jonathan McLean said. “Trying to run an election during COVID is unprecedented, and it went pretty smooth. I think the volume of vote by mail was a little difficult to control because we’re just not set up to handle the volume of vote by mail that we ended up having.”
In contrast to other counties across the country, Monroe County residents knew the results of their elections on Election Day.
With a voter turnout of at least 78.9 percent and 21,137 votes cast, McLean’s office still counted all ballots in a timely manner, which he credited to several factors.
“We were just very organized. We had a plan in place,” he said. “Getting the mail ballots processed early and having the new equipment was nice. In some precincts, we’ve gone to sharing a ballot box, so judges can actually get closed up a little bit faster. We’re very disciplined in how we process things, and that helps a lot. I try to simplify every single step and not overcomplicate things.”
McLean was able to process the mailed ballots early because, unlike in some states like Pennsylvania, Illinois allows election officials to do so.
Processing a ballot entails verifying the signature on it, opening the certification envelope, placing the ballot with others of its kind, running the ballots through a tabulator and putting all of them in a secure box.
“We’re just processing them: making sure the signatures match, that it’s a legal voter and putting the ballot through the tabulator,” McLean, a Republican, explained. “Nobody’s running an official count of how those people voted.”
“It just gives the judges more time,” McLean added. “Whenever you relieve some of that pressure of a deadline, we can take our time and we’re more organized.”
With nearly 5,000 people voting by mail in this election, compared to a normal 1,000-1,500, McLean said processing those ballots early allowed more time for residents to correct any issues like signature irregularities, in addition to counting all the votes in a timely manner.
As of Friday, the county clerk’s office had 17 ballots with outstanding signature issues.
“We really didn’t have any big problems,” McLean said of the mailed ballots.
The new voting equipment, which the county purchased last year for almost $200,000 to replace its aging machines, also proved beneficial to tallying the votes.
“We didn’t have any equipment issues at all,” McLean said, noting Monroe County still had a technician on-hand on Election Day just in case. “The only issue we had was the equipment is new, so some of the judges were still getting used to it.”
The equipment also is designed to read ballots marked with a black marker – something McLean’s office got several calls about after rumors circulated that similar writing utensils in other states caused ballots to not be counted.
In addition to the large number of mail-in votes, McLean said the most challenging aspect of running this election was people who decided to vote in-person after requesting the county mail a ballot to them.
McLean estimated almost 200 voters took that step.
“What we ended up doing is the voter would surrender their (mail-in) ballot, then we would give them an in-person ballot,” Mclean said. “However, for us to do that we have to switch them from being a vote-by-mail voter to an in-person voter, so there’s an extra step involved, and that slows things down.”
McLean said most of those voters who he spoke with had not yet mailed or completed their mailed ballot.
They frequently changed their minds after deciding the coronavirus pandemic did not present a significant enough danger to warrant voting by mail, per McLean.
Another issue the county clerk encountered was residents losing or throwing away their ballots, resulting in 74 provisional ballots, primarily from those individuals, being cast.
“I think the one important note this election is do not throw away your ballot,” McLean emphasized.
The provisional ballots have not yet been counted as the county waits to ensure those voters’ mailed ballots do not arrive. Additionally, there are 67 vote-by-mail ballots postmarked on or before Election Day that must be counted and 255 mailed ballots that have yet to be returned.
Illinois ballots postmarked on or before Election Day must arrive by Nov. 17 to be counted.
If none of those 255 come in, the turnout will be at that 78.9 percent figure – though McLean said enough vote-by-mail ballots from people like those serving in the military may still arrive to push that number to 79 percent.