Electon 2012: Improved Mail-in System Could Increase Cook County Voting
By Julian Zeng
The Red Line Project
Posted: Monday, Sept. 24, 2012
The Cook County Clerk’s office is expecting an increase in suburban Cook County voting for the Nov. 6 general election thanks to a reworked, more convenient mail-in voting system.
Noah Praetz, Cook County's deputy director of elections, said Monday that the new mail voting could help ease absentee voting procedures internally and save money in the long run. Praetz spoke about the process with DePaul University graduate journalism students.
Praetz, who has worked in Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office since 2000, is optimistic that the ease with which individuals can vote, coupled with new technology, will produce a “sea change” in ballot numbers recorded in 2008.
Until last year, Illinois residents were required to submit a signed affidavit for absentee voting. Since then, the process has been made easier by only requiring an application (available in English, Spanish, Hindi and Chinese) to be filled out for mail voting. This simplification is in line with Illinois’ “no excuse” absentee voting policy, as applications for early voting provide an alternative for those who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day.
Praetz also explained the re-dubbing of absentee balloting to mail-in voting.
“All you have to do is go to our website," he said. "Download an application, fill it out, mail it in … then you’ll get a ballot. You fill that out, sign the affidavit on the back of the envelope, send it in and that’ll be counted.
“We expect and are ramping up for this to become a much greater portion of our voting. Four years ago, there were only about 25,000 absentee ballots returned, and I think we could double, triple, even quadruple that number this year.”
Technology has been a decisive factor in attempts to boost suburban Cook County voting numbers. In March, the Cook County Clerk’s office purchased a new mail-sorting system that helps tally votes faster than before, improving the efficiency of counting votes, especially those collected via absentee ballots.
Voting registration closes 28 days prior to the Nov. 6 election date, although voters can take advantage of a ”grace period” registration extension, which allows them extra time to update their registration information. If voters wait to cast a ballot during this extended period -- Oct. 10 to Nov. 3 -- they are eligible for grace period registration at each county clerk’s office location.
The mail-sorting system was purchased for $216,914 with federal funding made available by the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
Prior to March, officials needed to hand-check each ballot received, comparing signatures to confirm the voter’s identity and sorting them into their respective piles. This long, inefficient process has now been replaced by a more cost-effective operation.
“The per-vote cost of administering a mail-in program is tremendously lower than the per-vote cost of precinct voting,” Praetz said. “We calculated that we process about one ballot every four minutes for precinct voting. We know that with our new technology we’re way below that, closer to 10 ballots per minute.
“A camera takes a picture and scans the signature and bar code … it’s very quick.”
Infographic: A statistical breakdown of mail voting on a local and national level. (Graphic by Chris Burrows)