Illinois officially pushed the "start" button Thursday on the vote-by-mail process for the 2020 elections, mailing out more than 1.8 million ballots to voters statewide.
Last month, the Illinois State Board of Elections says the state's 108 election authorities sent out some 6.4 million applications for the vote-by-mail process. As of Thursday, 1.82 million voters had applied, more than quadrupling the previous record of 430,000 just two years ago.
"That constituted 9.3% of the total vote in the November 2018 midterm election," state election board spokesman Matt Dietrich told NBC 5. "That was up from 6.5% vote-by-mail in the 2016 presidential election."
At the current rate, Dietrich said the state is on track to have 25% to 30% of the vote cast by mail-in ballots.
Voting by mail has stirred controversy nationwide, with concerns about cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service and almost daily allegations by President DOnald Trump that the system is rife with fraud. There is no evidence that is true.
But we asked one local election authority, in Kane County, to show us how it's done.
"I'm a believer that people have a right to vote, and they should have options," County Clerk John Cunningham told NBC 5. "I think a person should make a decision what is best for them."
Cunningham said he has received assurances from the Postal Service that nothing will impede the delivery of ballots and that he is confident the system is secure.
"It's as air tight as it's ever been," he said. "Can there be improvements? There can always be improvements. And people are working on that!"
In Kane County as in all Illinois jurisdictions, mail-in ballots will arrive in sealed envelopes, which voters must sign on the outside. Illinois election boards are not required to provide postage, but Kane County does.
In contrast, Sangamon County does not provide postage, and voters must put stamps totaling $1.40 on their ballot envelopes. The state board says it has been assured by the Postal Service that all ballots will be delivered, even if voters failed to apply the proper postage.
When mail-in ballots arrive in the Kane County clerk's office, the first stop is a giant machine which reads the signatures on the outside of the envelopes. Cunningham notes that was a laborious task in the past, which could take some 15 minutes per ballot when done manually.
"This machine can do up to 600 a minute," he said.
After that, a panel of three election judges compare the electronically-captured signatures with those in the election rolls. It takes a unanimous vote of those bi-partisan panels to reject a ballot for a bad signature. If that happens, voters are contacted within 48 hours to provide proof of who they are and are given the opportunity to come in to re-vote their ballots.
"The security of the system is the same as it's always been," Cunningham said. "But even better with this equipment as far as verification of the signature."
Once that verification process is completed, the ballots are fed every day into scanners which process the data. No votes are actually counted at that stage, but the information gathered from the ballots is recorded on electronic cards which are then locked away.
On election night, the cards are retrieved, inserted into readers, and the votes are actually counted -- usually the first totals to appear after the polls close at 7 p.m.
President Trump has raised troubling vote-by-mail scenarios, such as ballots being stolen from mailboxes and filled out by unscrupulous actors. Election officials insist that would be an almost impossible task in Illinois.
"The ultimate standard that is used to verify those ballots is the voters' signature," the election board's Matt Dietrich said. "And you'll have a panel of three election judges at [every] election authority processing each ballot. They'll be checking those signatures -- it's the same standard as is used in in-person voting."
What about scenario number two, where a voter casts his vote by mail on the eve of election day, then claims he never receives it and votes in a polling place---securing two votes?
"That's not going to happen, because whichever is received first -- if you make it to your polling place and cast your vote there, after falsely attesting that you did not receive your ballot -- then your in-person vote will count," he said. "That puts your local election authority on alert. If they receive a vote-by-mail ballot that is coded to you, and which you stated and signed that you never received, that vote is not going to be counted -- their system would reject that vote automatically."
Plus, that's vote fraud.
Most state election authorities will have some means for voters to track their vote-by-mail ballots, to know when they arrive and when they are tabulated.
"You can see where your ballot is -- it's been received -- it's been voted," Dietrich said. "If there's a problem with it, you'll be hearing from your election authority."
The last date to apply for a mail-in ballot is Oct. 29, but that's cutting it close, considering the fact you would need to receive the ballot, fill it out and mail it by election day Nov. 3. Indeed, the Postal Service has notified election authorities in Illinois there is some doubt about delivery of ballots within that five-day window.
In a July 30 letter, they recommended voters mail ballot applications no later than 15 days before election day. And Dietrich said his agency has continually advised citizens who intend to vote by mail to get their ballots in the mail earlier rather than later.
"Get your vote-by-mail application in as soon as you can," he said. "And then once you get your ballot voted, return it as soon as you can."
Under state law, local election boards will have two weeks to count any straggling mail-in votes, as long as they were postmarked on or before election day. That means the final vote totals will not truly be known before that extended period expires Nov. 17.
Depending how close some races are, it could make a difference.
"It is entirely possible we could have a couple million votes outstanding, as of the close of polls," he said. "And you know, that could change everything."