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McLean County implementing tracking for mail-in voting

County Clerk Kathy Michael, right, refers to a mail-in ballot held beside her, showing instructions that allow voters to track their ballot.
Colin Hardman
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael shows the new instructions section of a mail-in ballot that includes a QR tracking code.

McLean County is investing in a new tracking system for mail-in voting for elections, starting with the presidential contest in November.

Tracking will be provided by election technology firm KNOWiNK, which describes itself as “the largest and most trusted electronic poll book solution in North America.”

County Clerk Kathy Michael made the announcement during a news conference on Friday. Also present was John Ackerman, who spearheaded the same change as clerk of Tazewell County. Foremost as a selling point is efficiency and financial savings that are a result of a nonprofit mail rate and transporting ballots in larger groups. Costs could fall from over $1 per ballot to between 18 and 25 cents, said Michael.

“We’re coming up with at least $100,000 savings if the entire county gets on board and is able to do this non-for-profit [mailing rate]. But just in one mailing, we’re saving $10,000 to $15,000 in the mailing costs,” Michael told reporters.

“But as important, or almost more important, is the time savings for our overworked election staff.”

According to Michael, no new staffing or equipment will be required to implement the changes.

Effective mail-in voting has become increasingly crucial as the number of citizens opting to vote by mail has increased. Amid COVID-19 concerns and a presidential election, 2020 saw a spike from 1,000-2,000 mail-in votes to more than 15,000 in McLean County. With about 6,000 ballots already requested, Michael thinks this November might surpass that number.

“This may be the biggest turnout we’ve ever seen for this presidential [election]. As voters have — as we’ve helped build their confidence in our process — I think we’re going to see over 15,000,” she said.

As for how voters can engage with the new system, mail-in ballot applications will be mailed to all registered voters. The ballots themselves now contain a perforated tear-off slip with instructions, a QR code for tracking online, and instructions for those unable to use that code.

Ackerman likened the process to tracking a package delivery.

Officials said St. Louis-based KNOWiNK merely transports ballots and tracks their location, never unsealing envelopes or recording contents. Additionally, the company uses the same database security as election officials themselves in the interest of voter privacy.

The county clerk’s office handles elections for McLean County with the exception of Bloomington, which has its own election authority. The county and Bloomington Election Commission offer vote-by-mail instructions online.

Colin Hardman is a correspondent at WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.