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In Clerk's Race, Both Sides Stretch The Truth on Early Voting Delay

Kathy Michael and Nikita Richards
Ryan Denham
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, right, faces a challenge from Democrat Nikita Richards in the Nov. 6 election.

Democrat Nikita Richards says Republican McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael “broke the law” when she delayed the start of early voting last spring. Republicans say that’s a “bold lie that cannot be allowed to stand.”

So which is it? Turns out, both sides are exaggerating.

What’s Alleged?

Richards has repeatedly criticized Michael for delaying the start of early voting ahead of the March 20 primary election. Instead of starting Feb. 8, early voting began Feb. 20.

"It was a very, very tough decision for all of us, because we were within days of knowing whether this person would be on the ballot."

The Bloomington Election Commission oversees elections for Bloomington voters; Michael’s office handles the rest of McLean County. Both Michael and the BEC decided to delay the start of early voting because of a pending court challenge in the attorney general’s race.

Michael said starting early voting as originally scheduled could have disenfranchised some voters.

"How could we have some voters voting for someone and then two weeks later have a different ballot?" said Michael.

Richards was critical last spring and again recently, when she told a local church congregation: “And by starting it late, Kathy Michael broke the law.”

Richards made similar comments to GLT in September.

“The state statute gives us 40 days (before the election to start early voting). That is not discretionary. That is law,” she said.

McLean County Republican Party chair Connie Beard issued a statement Monday criticizing Richards for her comments about Michael. She wants Richards to apologize.

“Ms. Richard’s statement is a bold lie that cannot be allowed to stand,” Beard said. “To casually toss out accusations of criminal conduct without proof, or anything at all to substantiate the claims, is the worst kind of campaign practice.”

What’s The Law?

State law says “the period for early voting by personal appearance begins the 40th day preceding a general primary, consolidated primary, consolidated, or general election and extends through the end of the day before election day.”

State Board of Elections spokesperson Matt Dietrich told GLT that his agency advised local election authorities to consult with their legal advisors (typically the state’s attorney’s office) if they planned to delay early voting. Early voting should begin 40 days out unless a court order says otherwise, he said.

“Our stance on that was, we go by Illinois election code. And Illinois election code says early voting begins 40 days out from the election,” Dietrich said.

But the State Board of Elections has no authority to tell local election authorities what to do.

Was It Just McLean County?

The McLean County clerk’s office wasn’t alone in delaying the start of early voting.

The Bloomington Election Commission made the same decision, said Executive Director Paul Shannon. The clerk and BEC wanted to open early voting on the same days to avoid confusion, he said. The BEC consulted with its own attorney about the decision, Shannon said.

“This issue has happened before and it will happen again,” Shannon said via email. “The state changed the start of early voting but did not change the date of filing. With the shortened amount of time between filing and the start of early voting, there is no time to allow for court challenges to get completely done. The election jurisdictions are going to be put in the spot to make this call.”

It’s unclear how much consultation took place between Michael’s office and the McLean County state’s attorney office. Jessica Woods, McLean County first assistant state’s attorney in the civil division, declined to comment on specific communications between the two offices, citing attorney-client privilege. But Woods said it “would be odd” for the State Board of Elections, based on past behavior, to “give us a definitive directive to get a court order,” as Dietrich described to GLT.

The start of early voting was also delayed in other jurisdictions, such as Chicago and Peoria, for the same reasons—unsettled ballot challenges. So if Michael broke the law by delaying the start of early voting without a court order, she wasn’t alone in doing so.

The Peoria Election Commission’s members are appointed by the chief judge, and its legal advisor is the Peoria County state’s attorney, said Executive Director Tom Bride.

“The state’s attorney understood what we were doing. The chief judge—I tried to keep him informed about what was going on. They both agreed we were trying to be prudent about it and that a delay of a week at the beginning of the 40 days was probably a better solution than the confusion of having people vote on a ballot and then having to change those ballots later.”

Bride added: “We want to start on time, all the time, obviously, and the statutes are clear. But we determined it would be better off for the voter to knock that first week off as opposed to the confusion of, ‘I got a ballot in the mail. And now I got a second ballot in the mail.’”

In an editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times said the “law demands the impossible.” It calls on lawmakers to “fix the problem by changing the early voting schedule for primary and consolidated local elections.”

Who Started On Time?

Early voting started on time in Tazewell and Sangamon counties.

In Tazewell County, Clerk Christie Webb said she consulted with her state’s attorney before making her decision to start on time Feb. 8.

“We were one of a few,” said Webb, a Democrat. “It was a very, very tough decision for all of us, because we were within days of knowing whether this person would be on the ballot. And it made it a very hard decision for us. I just decided we were gonna go for it and deal with whatever happens later.

“In hindsight, it worked out for us, but it could’ve just been totally wrong,” Webb said. “I just opted on the side of, ‘I’m gonna do what the statute says and let the chips fall where they may.’”

Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray, a Republican, also started on time.

Ultimately, Democratic attorney general candidate state Rep. Scott Drury won his appeal and appeared on the primary ballot. He ultimately lost to Democratic nominee Kwame Raoul.

Michael and Richards will appear at a debate at 6 p.m. Thursday, hosted by GLT and the League of Women Voters of McLean County. It will be held at Heartland Community College.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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