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Q&A: County Clerk Sees Trust So Far In Vote-By-Mail System

Kathy Michael speaks
Jeff Smudde
Clerk Kathy Michael oversees elections through McLean County, with the exception of the City of Bloomington.

McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael says she agrees with a Brennan Center report that concludes it's more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud.

WGLT correspondent Colleen Reynolds spoke with Michael about the river of rhetoric on the security of voting by mail in the upcoming presidential election.

Michael said voters seem to have confidence in the system.

Michael: You can see that in the amount of vote-by-mail applications we are getting back from our large mailing. We have over 5,000 now in six days. (Editor’s note: It’s now up to 6,473 since this interview was recorded.) We were expecting a lot but you didn't know, because out there, there's concerns, the concerns that we hear about: What if they don't get postmarked in time? And all those things.

I think people are trusting our post office here and our offices here, and there’s much less concerned than I thought there was going to be.

WGLT: But you are getting some questions. I saw some on the Facebook page for the clerk's office.

Well, actually, the most common ones were people getting two and three applications for the vote-by-mail. We had 75 telephone calls to return this weekend. And I would say the vast majority is, “Kathy, I got three applications, and two had your name on it, and one wasn't from your office. Are they OK?” And actually, legally any organization can send out a vote-by-mail application, and a couple of them did with our name and address on them. So we just tell them, any of those applications are good. We catch any duplications. You don't have to worry about that.

One of the concerns I've heard about is the post office. We keep hearing about the U.S. Postal Service being slowed down.

Well, all I can say is, I think each county has to take responsibility and do their due diligence.

Once this bill was signed into law on June 16 mandating this mailing, we got in touch with our post office folks. We've had several virtual phone calls, and they've assured us and we feel very well assured, and we can tell our voters that they're on it. Does that mean they can handle all this mailing just like us? And they assure us they can. So we've offered to help in any way we can. In fact, we got two emails from them, which we've never had before, checking on, “How's the application process going? Have you noticed any delays in that? Is there any way we can help you with that?” And that's very refreshing.

I can't promise people that things are going to be perfect, but I think we're on top of it, as are our postal workers, as much as anybody can be.

If anyone has made up their mind, we urge them if they can, the minute you get your vote by mail (ballot) — and we start mailing those Sept. 24; we can’t mail them before that — get them in the mail. We will send a postcard saying we received your vote-by-mail ballot. So then you can start calling us, you know, the first week in October: Did you get my ballot? Did you get my ballot? And then we'll be able to see, is there a problem? Is there a backlog? And we'll have some time to get ahead of that.

I’ve seen several social media comments about how vote by mail is different than absentee voting, and they can't be given the same trust level. Can you address that?

They are the same thing. Even on the forms that are sent out by the state, it says absentee at the top and mail-in ballot at the bottom.

How do you authenticate the ballot once it arrives?

According to the new law, we are to have three judges: a Republican, a Democrat, and whoever, as long as you've got one of each, at least. And understand this: The only way to verify in Illinois a ballot is by signature, and if there's anything that doesn't look right, it's not that we don't count that ballot. We follow through. We'll call the voter. Did you send this ballot? And that's the only way now to authenticate. We have always done this, but we've used two judges. Now we are mandated to use three.

You’ve been spending some time these days reassuring voters that vote by mail is a safe option and it will be available for the Nov. 3 presidential election, and that it will be a secure vote.

Here's why I like vote by mail this year. What if something worse happens? What if COVID gets even worse and you can't go to your polling place? I don't want to see anybody lose their right to vote.

So I would take the chances on that and trust in McLean County to count your vote rather than missing your opportunity to exercise your right to vote.

Are there other places people can drop off their ballots besides mailing them?

We are going to have one here in the Government Center. And that way, it's secure. We will have people watching it. We will get the ballots out every evening so that they can put them in a safe.

But putting them out on the street like these states do, I don't feel comfortable in doing that right now.

Do you feel good about your ability to count the votes in a timely manner?

No. I think you can expect delayed results. And it's not a matter of us counting them slower or not doing our job. But imagine the people delaying mailing their ballot. They were going to go to the polling place. They still have their ballot and at the last minute, as long as that ballot is postmarked on or before Election Day, Nov. 3, it will count. Well, what if 5,000 people decide to mail it on Nov. 2, or even a couple days before that, and we get in our mail on Election Day 5,000 or 6,000 ballots?

We are used to instant gratification, and I think we're in a world right now with COVID to understand that things might be a little bit different this time around, and it's just going to be a day-by-day process to see how COVID continues to affect our lives.

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.