County clerks fight back amid election disinformation at Bloomington event
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael referenced a quote from anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network” when she said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any longer.”
That’s how she began an election question and answer session and voting machine demonstration that was open to the public Saturday at Eastland Mall. Michael, who heads up elections for rural McLean County and the town of Normal, was referencing the frustration she and many of her fellow election authority directors feel about the misinformation and the disinformation (deliberate lies) fueling concerns about the security of local elections.
About a dozen people showed up. They were all election judges or employees of election authorities. Also on hand for questions were clerks from Tazewell and Champaign Counties, as well as new Bloomington Election Commission Director Luke Stremlau who has been on the job for less than two months.
Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman says Illinois gets a bad wrap because of a successful 2016 hack of state board of election records. But since then, he says the federal government and the state beefed-up measures to monitor and spot cybersecurity risks to ensure a fair and free election.
Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons says his office is dealing with the intentional spread of lies, and a culture of violence and vitriol. “I’ve received the most vile letters, using the F word and signed ‘MAGA forever.’ My staff feels attacked just for doing their jobs.” He adds, “They are on the front lines of democracy and should be respected.”
Tazewell County’s Ackerman was quick to point out, “This (questions about election security) isn’t a limited thing or a partisan issue.” He’s hosting similar events with clerks from Peoria and Knox Counties.
Longtime election judge Caprice Elliot responded, “I’m glad to see you are not working in silos.”
McLean County Clerk Michael stressed that voting by mail (VBM) is safe and secure. If there isn’t enough postage on the envelope, it will still be delivered and the clerk’s office will have to pay the postage due.
The mailed-in ballots are open before a Democratic and a Republican election judge and if there’s a question, they engage in a deliberative process of how to verify the ballot. Michael says she has even visited homes in an attempt to verify a ballot was legitimately cast. Ballots are stored in a machine but they are not tabulated until the polls have closed.
Ammons says vote-by-mail is about access and efficiency. Champaign County has been able to reduce polling places from 95 to 67 because of the popularity of VBM which had as many as 30,000 Champaign County residents using the mail to vote during the 2020 election. He says it represents a cost savings and eases the burden of finding election judges which has been a challenge.
He says what some people saw as novel approaches to voting due to the pandemic have long been a part of our nation’s history.
“We’ve been voting by mail since the Civil War when soldiers voted that way,” Ammons pointed out. “We’ve been using drop boxes for decades.”
But, Ammons says the COVID-19 pandemic brought federal money to help provide support for increasing use of the mail and drop boxes.
Machines to open and sort ballots are expensive, running as high as $17,000 or more, the election officials shared.
Clerks are currently submitting their budgets to county boards and Kathy Michael says she’s including increased pay for election judges.
Ackerman is doing the same, but he’ll be asking to bring up pay from $165 to $200 for Election Day, a level already offered in Mclean County.
Ammons reiterated his position about the importance of making sure the system works. “We are on the frontlines of democracy so we shouldn’t be working on a shoestring budget.”
Michael agreed, “It takes money to allow us to keep up with the technology.”
WGLT had an opportunity to ask Michael and Ackerman, both Republicans, if they believed the 2020 election was stolen. Both replied they are confident the votes were secure and counted appropriately in their own counties, while Ackerman made clear he did not believe there was widespread voter fraud elsewhere.
"I have faith that the 2020 presidential election was done correctly," Ackerman replied.
“I can’t answer for every county or every state or the country. I know that in 2020, ours were honest and run ethically and proven by our vote totals and the state board of elections certification,” Michael responded.
Ammons, a Democrat, says most people don’t understand what it takes to run an election and he’s done his best to explain the process when he’s been questioned about whether he’s rigging elections.
“I spoke with a woman at a debate we had recently and she said, ‘I don’t trust voting by mail.’ I asked her, ‘Why don’t you trust vote by mail?’ She said, 'Well everyone just says it’s fraudulent and not secure.’ I asked, ‘Have you spoken about that with any election officials or election authorities who run elections?’ She said, ‘No, I just hear it on the news and other places.”
Ammons says he encouraged the woman to sit down with someone who works elections and ask questions. He also suggested she serve as an election judge so she could see the process firsthand.
“She was just sort of indifferent about my answer and that’s what concerns me because she was speaking to someone who understands and knows the process, but it didn’t change her thought about it,” Ammons said.
Michael says she usually gets a positive response when she explains the processes, but not from everyone.
“Some people are just not going to buy it and at some point, you can’t convince certain people, on all sides of the spectrum, but that’s life isn’t it?”
During a demonstration of machines, McLean County Assistant Elections Director Mark Senger showed how even hand sanitizer on hands doesn’t impact the ability to use touch screens. He shared Illinois uses the most secure form of modern voting -- a hybrid approach combining paper and technology. Hybrid voting ensures that a voter’s intent is accurately captured through the touch screen and backed up by a paper ballot for auditing purposes.
The state of Illinois has certified only four companies that can supply voting machines to local election authorities. McLean County uses machines from Election Systems & Software. Michael added, Dominion Voting Systems is a certified vendor in Illinois but did not submit a bid. Dominion has filed a $1.7 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox Corporation for repeatedly airing false allegations suggesting the voting machine maker was part of a plot to steal the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump.
If you are looking for information about the November 8 general election, you can visit the WGLT election page. The League of Women Voters of McLean County recommend using the Vote 411 website for information about how to register, where to vote, what’s on your ballot, and for background about ballot questions and candidates.