Ediors Note: This report is lengthy and worth the read. How does your election jurisdiction keep track of the absentee ballots? Who oversees the process? When exactly are the ballots counted?
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The key to ballot integrity is having a security consciousness reflected throughout the entire process. Our objective was to document the process of intake to tally of the ballots in Chicago and Suburban Cook County. Absentee ballots must be tallied at the main office of the election jurisdiction. Both offices are located (on separate floors) at 69 West Washington Street, Chicago.
Absentee Voting in Suburban Cook County and Chicago plays a significant role in local, state, and national elections. More and more people are electing to vote by absentee ballot. But is the vote secure? Defend the Vote investigators spent a month investigating the inner workings of how safe the vote is in these two locations. Lead investigator, Kurt Fujio writes his summary report.
Suburban Cook County
Audit Result from the
November 2102 Presidential Elections
Report by Kurt Fujio
This audit was sponsored by Defend the Vote in cooperation with Argonne National Laboratory
Absentee Voting by Mail in Chicago and Cook County
Observations and Issues - General Election 2012
Defend the Vote investigated absentee voting by mail in Chicago and Cook County during the 2012 General Election. This report briefly summarizes various observations, election integrity concerns, and security risks revealed during the investigations.
Chicago and Cook County
Investigations were conducted on-location at the Cook County Building in Chicago, Illinois.
The Cook County Building houses both the Cook County Clerk's office, responsible for elections within suburban Cook County, and the Chicago Board of Elections, which is responsible for elections within the city of Chicago. Election operations are managed and administered separately between Cook County and Chicago, even though Chicago is located within Cook County.
"Cook County" hereinafter refers to suburban Cook County and the Cook County Clerk's office, and excludes the city of Chicago, unless otherwise noted.
There are currently a number of different ways to vote in Illinois elections, including election day voting, absentee voting, and grace period voting.
Absentee voting refers to voting without being present at the polling location on election day. There are a number of alternative ways to absentee vote in Illinois, voting by mail, in-person nursing home voting, and in-person absentee voting prior to election day. No reason needs to be provided to vote absentee in Illinois.
Absentee voting by mail includes ballots cast by registered voters who may be located at their home address within the district, or elsewhere, including out-of-state, overseas, or stationed on military duty. Registered voters imprisoned in jail who are not convicted of felony may also absentee vote.
"Absentee voting" hereinafter refers to absentee voting by mail.
Both Chicago and Cook County officially encourage and promote absentee voting by mail, and other alternatives to election day voting, in order to increase voter turnout and participation.
Absentee voting by mail represents a growing percentage of ballots cast in elections.
Absentee Voting by Mail Election Procedures
1. Voter is registered to vote.
2. Voter requests an application for ballot.
3. Voter returns completed application for ballot.
4. Voter sent a ballot.
5. Voter returns completed ballot.
6. Ballot is counted.
In most cases, these procedures are a step-by-step sequential process. However, prospective voters may submit voter registration by mail and request a ballot application at the same time.
Overseas and military voters may use an electronic ballot system online to generate a pre-printed ballot, containing votes cast, which is returned by mail to be counted.
Each of these steps contain a number of processes which give rise to further analysis and investigation with regard to election integrity and security risks.
We observed all aspects of absentee voting by mail firsthand where directly possible, and interviewed numerous staff members and workers at every level to obtain further detailed information.
Election Integrity Concerns
Absentee voting, by its nature, gives rise to concerns regarding election integrity which are unique from traditional Election Day voting. Since voting takes place by mail, outside of the view of witnesses, there is greater potential for vote fraud and abuse.
Potential Vote Fraud Issues
Election integrity is compromised when votes are counted which should not be counted, or when votes are not counted which should be counted.
There is a tremendous potential of risk for vote fraud in absentee voting because voting is conducted by mail rather than in person.
The criteria used to evaluate the integrity of votes and ballots is highly subjective and tends to favor counting ballots which are difficult to challenge in the event they are improper.
Throughout all aspects of absentee voting, administering the election involves unsupervised activity which provides the possible opportunity for wrongdoing, as well as unintentional errors.
Physical security of voting materials and ballots throughout the election represents another risk to election integrity. Apart from potential vote fraud, risk of loss or damage is another danger to election integrity.
Public Scrutiny and Accountability
Although election judges and public observers are allowed to examine certain aspects of absentee voting, not all procedures are transparently visible for observation during the election.
When absentee voting occurs without the availability of public scrutiny, the question of potential vote fraud arises due to the lack of oversight and accountability necessary to ensure proper integrity.
Election Law Compliance
Illinois law provides specific detail regarding absentee voting with regard to certain procedures, which may or may not be followed accordingly to either the spirit or the letter of the law.
Defend The Vote Observations
Legal Compliance Regarding Public Observation – (Chicago)
Initial efforts to arrange observation consisted of a limited, scheduled viewing of ballot application signature comparisons for a very small sample of applications (approximately sixty). Reasons for not allowing observations as required under Illinois law consisted primarily of logistical concerns. However, after defend the Vote raised the issue in several Chicago Board of Election meetings, cooperation resulted in arrangements for adequately observing signature comparisons for applications and ballots received subsequently.
Legal Compliance Regarding Ballot Counting – (Cook County)
Cook County began counting absentee ballots by inserting ballots into vote counting machines on Monday, November 5, 2012, rather than after closing of polls on election day. Staff described this schedule as commonplace in prior years, also. Cook County continued counting ballots throughout the day on election day, Tuesday, November 6, 2012. In addition, absentee ballots were counted on a daily basis subsequently through the final day of election results certification, Tuesday, November 21, 2012.
Legal Compliance Regarding Ballot Counting – (Chicago)
Chicago began counting absentee ballots by inserting ballots into vote counting machines on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, prior to the closing of polls on election day. Results were transferred to data cartridges and reports printed at approximately 6:40 p.m on election day.
Ballots Delivered to Voter Without Completed Application – (Cook County)
Cook County procedures for accepting ballot applications consist of a review of data entered for each accepted application, in order to prevent mistakes. However, on several days this step was omitted, in order to rush data transfer by 4 p.m. to the ballot processing and mailing center, which sends ballots to the voters. One specific instance resulted in a voter receiving a ballot without providing the necessary signature required for a complete application to be accepted. Cook County gave its assurances to Defend the Vote that the particular instance would be tracked both manually and electronically to prevent a ballot to be counted without proper application. Defend the Vote observers continued to monitor the situation, in order to confirm the proper result. It was unclear if other similar incidents occurred. However, the particular incident did appear to be resolved correctly.
Investigation of Unobserved Procedures – (Cook County, Chicago)
Both Chicago and Cook County have standard operating procedures to follow-up on incomplete applications or ballots received from voters. Generally, this consists of a standard letter mailed to the voter, which provides a uniformity for all voters. However, telephone contact to the voter is also attempted to resolve various issues. The contact is initiated by staff routinely, as time permits, or, in particular circumstances, may be initiated by more senior-level employees. The time and effort involved to contact the voter may vary arbitrarily, resulting in possible unfairness if discretion is abused. These procedures were not observed in either Cook County or Chicago, but are based upon descriptions provided by elections staff in both districts.
Intra-Building Physical Transportation of Election Materials – (Cook County, Chicago)
Absentee voting occurs within the Cook County Building in downtown Chicago. The logistics of the building facilities and offices require that election materials, consisting of ballot applications and ballots, are transported between offices from floor-to-floor on a regular basis, through spaces open to the public. Cook County offices and facilities for absentee voting are located on the fifth floor and two different basement locations. Chicago offices and facilities for absentee voting are located on the sixth floor, eighth floor, and two different basement locations. Materials are hand-carried, carried in bins and containers, or hauled on carts through hallways and elevators open to the public. Various individuals transport applications and ballots, without supervision or security while en route. Chicago restricts access to the public to a portion of its offices used for absentee voting, thus it was not possible to observe various procedures performed in this location. Cook County provides public viewing access to most absentee activities, but activities are also performed outside of public areas for observation.
Seals for Security of Election Materials – (Chicago)
Chicago secured ballots in cardboard boxes sealed with signed duct tape nightly. One employee, who was the same person every day, was responsible for sealing the ballots and maintaining ballot security. After multiple uses over several days, the duct tape adhesive became less sticky. The same duct tape was used nightly, provided little actual security. Ballot boxes were located in a locked room. A security guard was present during public observations, and when a portion of the room was used for early voting and open to the public. Other employees, such as custodians to empty the trash, were observed entering the room. Ballots were transported in election transport cases under seal when moved to a different location for counting.
Seals for Security of Election Materials – (Cook County)
Cook County secured ballots in unsealed cardboard boxes stored in a locked closet nightly. The closet is located within a room which is locked nightly. During early voting, the room is shared and separated by a room divider. Ballots were also stored in bins and stacks in another location, without seals, in a locked room. A third location was also observed, consisting of a closet with an electronic lock located on the fifth floor. Cook County reported they will seal the ballots and applications in cardboard boxes with duct tape after the election is completed.
Unauthorized Personnel and Security of Election Materials – (Cook County)
On occasion, a child was present where absentee ballots were being processed. Although the child was not routinely involved in assisting with election work, it was reported that the child on occasion may have physically handled ballots, either to pass materials to workers, or to assist in transporting materials through the building from one location to another.
Vendors and Election Conduct – (Cook County, Chicago)
Vendor personnel participated actively in conducting election activities in Cook County, including scanning and remaking ballots, counting ballots, backing up vote data and transferring results to data cartridges. In Chicago, a vendor employee assisted scanning and remaking ballots. In both districts, vendor employees assisted in counting ballots using the counting machines, primarily during repairs or to correct problems.
Physical Risk of Disaster – (Cook County, Chicago)
During the election period, the building was placed on lockdown because a bank robber fled into the Cook County offices after making his getaway from the bank located in the building. One Defend the Vote observer exited the elevator as the bank robber entered the adjacent elevator, located in front of the Cook County Clerk's office handling the election. On another occasion, a fire alarm required all election activity to be interrupted as everyone was required to immediately exit the building.
List Available to Public – (Cook County)
Originally, at the beginning of absentee voting, Cook County did not provide the required list of absentee voter information available to the public. When Defend the Vote brought the matter to the attention of the proper officials, the matter was partially resolved by supplying a computer terminal with access to necessary, but perhaps not all, required information.
Timeliness of Information Available to Public – (Cook County)
Illinois law requires election authorities to post information, that a ballot has been received by a voter, within one day of receiving the ballot. However, Cook County held ballots for processing for days or weeks before scanning ballots to record the receipt. The scanning process involved multiple machine-processing steps, resulting in a discrepancy of days or weeks between the initial scan date and the recorded date stored after the steps were completed. It was reported that it had not been decided which date to use for reporting purposes, nor if it was possible technically to recover and store the first date. In either case, however, the date stored as data recording when the ballot was received represents an incorrect and inaccurate date. Further, as a result of the delay, the information was not available to the state or to the public in the timely manner required by law.
Election Judges versus Election Officials – (Cook County, Chicago)
Chicago employs election judges for counting ballots, remaking ballots, and deciding previously-challenged applications and ballots. However, election judges are not hired for comparing application or ballot signatures. Cook County does not hire election judges for any aspect of absentee voting.
Qualifications of Election Officials – (Cook County, Chicago)
Worker qualifications of employees deemed to be election officials for conducting absentee voting are unknown. Note- previous investigations have discovered that early voting election judges were hired without regard to citizenship, party affiliation, or other criteria critical to election integrity concerns. Here, neither worker training nor qualifications were investigated, due to human resources policies and employment privacy. It was reported that a substantial number of workers were temporary. However, the specific details of employment status were not investigated.
Absentee voting, by its nature, gives rise to concerns regarding election integrity which are unique from traditional Election Day voting. The increasing percent of the vote conducted by absentee voting represents a growing concern. Since voting takes place by mail, rather than in-person, there is greater potential for vote fraud and other risks.
Defend the Vote observed and investigated absentee voting conducted in the 2012 General Election in Chicago and suburban Cook County, which represents approximately forty percent of the total Illinois vote. Specific risks to election integrity were identified.
Further Study and Recommendations
Public observation- Integrity will be improved as more observers from independent and political organizations observe absentee voting activity.
Administrative management and statutory reform- Improvement in administration and applicable laws relevant to absentee voting are possible by implementing reasonable modifications that are feasible within the scope of limited resources and budgets available for election authorities. Obsolete, ineffective, or unworkable laws and procedures exist, which should be replaced or revised.
Voter registration investigation and audit- Voter registration is a key component of absentee voting and election integrity. Since the voter is not available for absentee voting, the voter signature and other information is the only criteria used to determine voter status. Without proper voter registration integrity, absentee voting integrity is at risk.
Election data analysis- Analysis of voter registration data, daily absentee reports, vote totals and other data provides essential information regarding activity which may indicate potential problems based on identifiable anomalies. Accumulating and analyzing data over multiple elections develops further information useful for identifying variances which may represent possible attempts of voter fraud.
Combined election observation and poll-watching- In addition to data analysis, real-time observations of various election activities is essential to identify additional risks of voter fraud, such as voting more than once in different locations, voting both in-person and absentee, voting in wrong location.
Media outreach and public awareness- Further efforts to present information to the public will increase awareness and involvement towards resolving various election integrity issues.
Defend the Vote research and observation of absentee voting in Chicago and Cook County during the 2012 General Election was made possible thanks to the cooperation of the Chicago Board of Election and the Cook County Clerk’s Office, the dedicated hard work of Defend the Vote field observers, and the generous support of contributors to Defend the Vote. We also acknowledge and appreciate the Vulnerability Assessment Team at Argonne National Laboratory for providing valuable insights into security vulnerabilities.
We wish to especially thank the generous contributions of Jack Roeser, Publisher of Champion News and Chairman of Otto Engineering, for standing up for the importance of the integrity of each and every ballot, and for supporting and guiding Defend the Vote as we pioneer in election integrity. Mr. Roeser has built a successful company with “Best Practices” and his knowledge is invaluable in helping to establish election “Best Practices” in Illinois. To Mr. Roeser’s many accomplishments, we add the title, Election Pioneer!
Thank you to Sharon Meroni who designed this project along with other investigative projects for Defend the Vote.
Thank you to Argonne National Laboratory’s Vulnerability Assessment Team for advising us during different phases of the investigation. Each step of the way, the insights of this team, led by Dr. Roger Johnston, provide important insights into security vulnerabilities.
For additional information:
Defend the Vote
Chicago Board of Elections.
Cook County Clerk’s Office - Elections - Suburban Cook County. http://www.cookcountyclerk.com/elections/Pages/default.aspx
Illinois Compiled Statutes - Chapter 10 - Elections. http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs2.asp?ChapterID=3
Report by Kurt Fujio