September 19, 2021

McHenry County clerk adds 4 more ballot drop boxes to improve voter access this election

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McHenry County voters now will be able to drop off vote-by-mail ballots at four additional ballot drop boxes in addition to the stand-alone collection site outside of the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock.

After pressing the issue at a few McHenry County Board committee meetings, board member Kelli Wegener said she was glad McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio decided to add drop boxes. Each is located at an early voting location.

“When we first started talking about this, Mr. Tirio was pretty adamant that we were going to have one,” Wegener said. “So I really appreciate the fact that he listened to people and he did change his mind. ... There was a big push by a lot of the community to request more drop boxes, so I am very happy with the results.”

In addition to the ballot box at the county administration building, voters will be able to drop off their mail-in ballots at four early voting locations: McHenry City Hall, the village of Lake in the Hills building, Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake and the McHenry Township building in Johnsburg.

In an interview Thursday, Tirio said he was happy to have figured out an innovative solution that satisfied his concerns about security and cost while also providing more access to ballot drop-off locations for residents.

After looking at a number of ballot box vendors that didn’t satisfy his admittedly elevated security requirements, Tirio said he was walking through the clerk’s office when he had an idea.

The county has a number of surplus ballot tabulator machines that are used at early voting locations and polling places to tally up people’s votes. These machines then store the ballots until they can be taken to the clerk’s office at the end of the day.

Because of their storage capacity and security features, the machines are perfectly suited to serve as ballot drop boxes, Tirio said.

“We are not going to turn on the tabulator on top,” Tirio said. “We’re simply going to open the emergency ballot bin below that, and it has the same security features as the tabulators that all the ballots are going into [for in-person voting]. For security, it’s a giant, hulking, top-heavy, 70-pound, hard-to-maneuver thing that people aren’t likely to, you know, run off with.”

Each of the tabulators-turned-drop boxes will be constantly monitored by election judges, and the mail-in ballots that are deposited will be securely taken to the clerk’s office at the end of each day to be verified and counted, Tirio said. Since the county will be reusing equipment it already has, the undertaking is almost cost-neutral, he said.

The four locations where the new drop boxes will be placed were selected because they are the sites with extended hours, open until 7 p.m., Tirio said. The locations were not chosen based on population density or accessibility, but Tirio said he hopes to make improvements in that area if election authorities are allowed to continue using ballot boxes after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

“In a perfect world, we’d like to have them maybe spaced differently,” he said. “However, given the other limitations that we have, this was what we thought was the best opportunity for the most people to get access to them.”

Wegener said that although she agrees that the four drop boxes could have been spaced out in a more equitable way, it still is a big improvement over having only one.

“I think this is a great start,” Wegener said. “It’s getting so close to the election. If this is what we have, that’s fine. I’m happy with that.”

After announcing his initial decision to provide only one ballot box for the county, Tirio said he got a lot of feedback on both sides. Although many voters wanted more options, others expressed concerns about the security of the voting process – concerns he said he had to weigh equally in making his decision.

One such concerned resident was Dave Fantus, who upon hearing that there would only be one drop box went so far as to offer to cut a check to the clerk’s office so it they could buy another large, stand-alone ballot box similar to the one at the county administration building.

“I’ve got some money, not a lot, but I want these lines to be as short as possible,” Fantus said. “So if there is only one, and if I could donate to get a second machine someplace in McHenry County ... I thought, you know, I could do this.”

Fantus is 80 years old, and before the March election, he said he only ever had voted in person on Election Day. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and his wife recently went through chemotherapy, leaving both of them especially vulnerable to the more severe symptoms associated with COVID-19.

As the pandemic stretched on and case counts grew, Fantus said he and his wife decided it would be best to vote by mail in the November election.

“But then I’m thinking about all the stuff going on with the post office ... and all that stuff started to bother me,” he said. “Basically, I wanted as many options as possible to vote.”

Fantus said he is glad Tirio found a way to offer more collection sites for vote-by-mail ballots without the need for his financial backing.

Wegener said she also will be voting by mail and appreciates Tirio’s support in giving voters as many options as possible without sacrificing security.

“I think that, in the future, vote-by-mail is going to be the way that people vote or mostly vote,” she said. “So I think however we can accommodate the voters while still keeping a secure and safe voting process is a win-win for everybody.”