Will County Clerk looks to automate vote-by-mail counting

The clerk’s office says new equipment could save the county significant money as it will likely handle much higher numbers of mail-in ballots in future elections

The Will County Clerk’s office is looking to automate its vote-by-mail process with new equipment it said will save the county significant money as mail-in ballot usage will likely remain high in future elections.

This month, clerk Lauren Staley Ferry presented a funding request to the county board’s Executive Committee to purchase the supplies necessary to process a significantly increased number of mail-in ballots.

As the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many to use mail-in voting for the 2020 general election, the Will County Clerk’s Office saw a 310% increase in requests for mail-in ballots. That equated to the clerk’s office needing to process nearly 110,000 ballots which were returned and counted.

The previous high for mail-in ballots came in the 2016 general election when the office processed a little over 25,000 ballots.

“The numbers that we saw in 2020, and even in (the 2021 municipal election) were staggering,” Staley Ferry said during the Executive Committee meeting last week.

The clerk said in her request document that she anticipates a comparable number of residents to vote by mail for the 2022 election. She also pointed to the state law passed this year which aimed to encourage more voting by mail. It allowed voters who requested a mail-in ballot in the previous election to not have to apply for another mail-in ballot in future elections.

“That just is going to continue our need to process these ballots,” Staley Ferry added.

Last year, to accommodate the huge number of mail-in ballots, the clerk’s office had to reassign staff who needed to work extended hours.

The office also hired more than 20 part-time election judges to manually assemble the ballots and verify signatures. This cost the county $129,000 which the county offset by using previously available federal relief funds.

The clerk’s office said in its proposal “the manual process is slow, labor intensive, costly, and required multiple levels of proofing to ensure accuracy.” Staley Ferry’s chief of staff Charles B. Pelkie said the new technology will allow the clerk’s office to spend a fraction of the time it took assembling and sorting ballots manually.

Specifically, the clerk’s office proposed purchasing equipment for a program called BlueCrest, which it said offers the best value, security and quality control of the two options it examined.

The clerk’s office listed the actual expenses including the purchase of a ballot printer for about $266,000, an inserter for about $590,000 and a sorter for around $452,000. The total cost for the equipment would come in around $1.3 million.

Maintenance and licensing costs for the equipment would cost the county a little over $430,000 over four years. Along with other costs like purchase of a high-volume ballot folder and reconstruction of the county building basement to accommodate the new equipment brought the total asking price to around $1.9 million.

Still, Pelkie said the automation equipment would save the county about $500,000 per election compared to if the clerk’s office had to process such a high volume of mail-in ballots manually.

The clerk’s office had suggested using some of the $133 million in American Rescue Plan funds the county received for the equipment, but County Board members said they would use money out of its contingency fund instead.