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McLean Co. Clerk Defends Election Requests In Tense Finance Meeting

Kathy Michael and Elizabeth Johnston
Eric Stock
McLean County Board member Elizabeth Johnston (right) questioned McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael during a County Finance Committee meeting on Wednesday.

Several Democratic McLean County Board members questioned some of County Clerk Kathy Michael’s budget requests and voter projections during a heated Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, while the three-term Republican countered by suggesting Democrats were trying to relitigate the 2018 election.

Michael plans to ask the County Board for up to an additional $400,000 to handle voting during the 2020 elections.

In a report Michael provided to the committee, she projects voter turnout to be between 80% and 85%, though she later clarified to say that would only be for the general election. She cited voter turnout of 50% for the primary elections and nearly 75% in the general election in the last presidential cycle.

Board member Carlo Robustelli (D-Bloomington) questioned Michael's numbers, indicating primary election turnout spiked in 2016 when both major parties were running multiple candidates. He said the lack of a Republican Party primary next year will likely reduce that turnout.

“I just worry that if we don’t get the data right in the information we are looking at, we are not really going to be able to make informed decisions about what to appropriate where and we depend on you for that,” Robustelli told Michael.

“I appreciate your comments and your great research. Give us a call sometime or come in and tell us that in person, that would be wonderful,” Michael replied.

A review of election results on the McLean County clerk’s website shows primary voter turnouts in presidential elections have averaged close to 38% since 2004.

“I’m going to go to psychic training to become a psychic,” she quipped when asked about her voter projections. “We are trying to make our best educated guess on what everybody else is telling us and we want to be ready for the biggest, highest, probably, turnout we have ever seen.”

County Board member Shayna Watchinski (D-Bloomington) accused Michael of not being upfront with the county. 

"We are pretty far into the process now and you are not giving us any information," Watchinski said. "I don't know if you are withholding that information because you are being intellectually dishonest." 

Some County Board members have criticized Michael's office's handling of long voting lines at Illinois State University during recent elections. Democrats sought to make that an issue during the 2018 election in which Michael defeated Democratic challenger Nikita Richards.

Michael said her office has never faced a formal claim of voter suppression and those who raise that allegation are doing a disservice to the voters. 

"That's an insult to me, that's an insult to my office, my staff, Democrats and Republicans, the voters of McLean County to try to portray this county as having voter suppresion or racial leanings is appalling and it has to come to an end," Michael said. "This kind of language is going on nationally, it's politically motivated and people are sick of it. That was proven in my election results in November."

The McLean County clerk’s office handles all election matters in McLean County outside of Bloomington.

Republican County Board member Chuck Erickson of Bloomington defended Michael’s handling of the office and pointed out long lines on Election Day are not just a McLean County problem.

“Long lines of voting are not a problem that’s unique to McLean County,” Erickson declared. “It’s happening everywhere in Illinois. To come in here and to try to take it out on this county clerk I think is a little bit over the board.”

He cited media reports which referenced long lines at polling sites in Chicago during the 2016 elections.

Robustelli questioned Michael first providing details of her budget request to the media before discussing it with board members, referencing a story which WGLT published last weekindicating her office would need up to $1.4 million to run the 2020 elections.

“Why wouldn’t we wait to provide the detail that you say you are going to provide and share that with the public so that they see exactly what your basis is for $600,000-$700,000 in election equipment,” Robustelli said.

“We are doing that right now, sir,” Michael replied. “We are doing that right now and if you will be a little patient, this is the beginning of the process.”

Michael said after the meeting the number will likely be closer to $1.3 million, in part because of a better negotiated price for iPads which she maintains each election judge needs to more quickly service voters, particularly those who are registering to vote on Election Day.

Michael replied that she didn’t have all the budget projections finalized and that she was providing preliminary numbers as a courtesy that she doesn’t plan to follow in the future.

“First you want information, now you are condemning me for putting out information to inform the public and inform you,” she said, adding the media contacted her about the election funding request.

“There’s something for you to look at and, you know what, I’m not going to give a monthly report again (to the Finance Committee) because, you talk about political, this is political,” Michael added amid jeers from several spectators in attendance who left the meeting as soon as Michael’s presentation was finished.

County Board member Elizabeth Johnston (D-Normal) said she commended Michael for efforts to improve the voting process on the ISU campus but she called “excessive” Michael’s comments on a county document stating those making voter suppression efforts “could be a deliberate, organized attempt to tamper with the voting process” and that she her office would be reaching out to the county and state authorities, “to see if action can be taken against those making these false allegations.”

“The idea that there is no substantiated accusations of voter suppression or voter fraud happening, that you would put this in to the point where you are prosecuting when this is a very public issue,” Johnston told Michael. “There (have) been quite a few comments, people are speaking out, people are concerned and to put this in almost as a threat of prosecution concerns me.”

Johnston added the office would be less political if elections were run by a nonpartisan commission.

The McLean County League of Women Voters has called for a nonpartisan election authority in the county, similar to the Bloomington Election Commission. City voters struck down a measure last yearto dissolve the BEC into the county clerk’s office.

Michael said the clerk’s office hopes to expand the number of early voting and Election Day polling sites at ISU to four based on recommendations that a panel of university officials provided.

She told the board ISU has secured Watterson Towers as an additional polling site, but others including Redbird Arena and Horton Fieldhouse are undergoing construction or have other conflicts. She told the committee fewer polling sites would mean fewer election judges and a lower budget request.

McLean County Administrator Camille Rodriguez told the committee the county plans to have the final 2020 budget projections for the full County Board to consider in September.

Michael said if the county calls for her to reduce her budget request, she feels keeping the iPads for the election judges are most critical to speeding up voting on Election Day.

Full County Board mtg Segment

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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