Among the many races and measures on the ballot for Bloomington voters this election is a proposal to do away with the agency that printed the very ballots they are using.
Supporters of a referendum to eliminate the Bloomington Election Commission are framing the measure as a move to streamline county government by moving all election services under the auspices of the McLean County clerk’s office, which already handles elections for all of the county except Bloomington.
Much of the political establishment appears to support the ballot initiative on at least some level, but each political party has different motives.
The McLean County Libertarian Party started collecting signatures in January to place a referendum on the ballot to eliminate the Bloomington Election Commission.
“We had talked about in 2017 as being a low-hanging fruit as far as a political objective,” McLean County Libertarian Party Chairman Steve Suess said. “We thought there would be broad support for this type of initiative across all different ideologies and political spectrums.”
Suess, who is also running for the County Board in District 8, estimated the measure would save the county about $500,000 per year. He cites how Sangamon County saved an estimated $500,000 annually once voters eliminated the Springfield Election Commission in 1996.
The McLean County Republican Party soon co-opted the idea of eliminating the county-funded BEC with a specific goal in mind—to have the county clerk’s office take over election responsibilities in the city as it already does for the rest of the county.
“For the first time, we have an opportunity at the ballot box to make a distinctive change in our government here in Bloomington,” McLean County GOP Chairwoman Connie Beard said during a recent news conference. “We will actually in a moment of a vote be able to downsize and streamline and create more efficiency and create more voter accountability in our city election process.
“I can’t remember ever having that kind of a direct impact on a government entity.”
A County Board committee at one point considered putting a separate proposal on the ballot to merge the offices, but it was defeated amid concerns it would cause confusion for Bloomington voters and possibly cause conflicting outcomes. If voters dissolved the Bloomington Election Commission, but opposed the merger, then what?
The head of the Democratic Party in McLean County, County Board member Erik Rankin, said Democrats also support consolidating offices, but believe a nonpartisan commission should handle election matters instead of an elected officeholder.
“Ironically we do support the dissolution of the BEC, but for the purpose of a countywide election commission,” Rankin said. “Because that’s not on the table, that’s why we are not currently supporting it.”
Some Democrats showed their opposition to the plan by joining BEC Commissioner Denise Williams in an unsuccessful legal challenge to thwart the ballot initiative.
Democrats have been distributing yard signs urging voters to keep the election commission intact, but Rankin stressed the Dems will be saving their campaign dollars to get more candidates elected.
“Are we going to spend any money running around trying to convince people? We’re not. I hope Republicans spend a lot of money on it. Maybe they won’t spend any money on their candidates.”
The Democrats are running a candidate for county clerk in a race that’s been filled with heated rhetoric and accusations of ethics violations on both sides. Nikita Richards is seeking to unseat two-term Republican Kathy Michael, who until now had never faced a Democratic challenger.
If Richards wins, she would be the first Democratic clerk in McLean County’s history.
A search of the county’s election archives shows the county clerk’s office has been under Republican rule since 1870. The county’s first clerk, Robert McIntyre, was elected in 1865 as a member of the Union Party, according to Pantagraph archives. (The Union Party was a temporary name for the Republican Party during the Civil War.)
Suess stressed the Libertarian Party’s goal is simply to bring city and county elections under one roof to save money.
“Whether it’s a countywide independent commission or the clerk administers elections throughout entire county, there’s room for debate and I can see viewpoints on both sides,” Suess said. “Moving to just one election authority for the entire county is goal number one.”
“Shall the city election law be rejected?”
The proposal to dissolve the Bloomington Election Commission is listed as an obtusely worded question near the bottom of the ballot. Is asks simply “Shall the city election law be rejected?”
That six-word question has prompted some questions from the public, such as “What does that even mean?”
Suess said the party’s then-county chairman Bennett Morris sought legal advice several years ago from Don Knapp, who was then-McLean County assistant state’s attorney and is now state’s attorney. (Morris is now the Illinois Libertarian Party chairman.)
Knapp advised the party that a more thoroughly-worded question might contain loaded language that would increase the likelihood for a legal challenge if it could be construed as seeking a particular outcome, according to Suess.
But Suess admits the measure’s language might cause some voters to misunderstand the question and possibly skip it.
“My fear is that people will just vote ‘no’ because the question is poorly worded,” Suess acknowledged. He recommended anyone who might not understand the question when they get to the ballot box or aren’t sure how to vote should just leave the question blank.
Kerri Milita, assistant professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, has studied ballot initiatives at the state and local levels. She predicts many voters will skip the vaguely-worded question.
“The more technically complex a proposal is (written), the more likely you are to frustrate people,” Milita said. “Most people do what we call roll off where they just abstain from voting on the measure.
“The measure should be specific. The measure should say exactly what we are getting into because it’s implied that if we dissolve this commission of course the (county) clerk is going to take it over. The clerk does everything else.
“Ambiguity is not your friend in direct democracy.”
Milita said many ballot questions like this suffer at the polls from what she calls a confusion penalty.
“You can probably look to have this measure (get) a fairly low turnout I would guess because most people aren’t going to necessarily understand it unless they have read about it ahead of time, which not a lot of people do.”
In 2008, the McLean County League of Women Voters studied election services in Bloomington and McLean County. It determined that moving all election offices under one roof would indeed be an efficiency, but it found having the office run by a politically-affiliated officeholder is fraught with problems, real and perceived.
“There could be a perception of partisanship if it is with an elected official that is tied to one or any political party,” said Emily Vigneri, president of the McLean County League of Women Voters. “We feel it’s just good to perhaps not have someone who is running for election be in charge of their own election or tallying their own votes.”
Maureen O’Keefe, past president of the League of Women Voters, handles policy issues for the group. She said the study shows it’s hard for the public to know if the voter lists are being kept properly and elections are being well run.
She said the County Board has no authority to direct the county clerk’s policies expect through the budgeting process, and there is no way to discipline the clerk if there are problems.
“There are no public meetings for voters who have complaints,” O’Keefe said.
However, O’Keefe said under a commission format, voters can raise concerns during the commission’s public meetings and election commissioners can fire the executive director.
“If there are hearings that are held and the voters are expressing that opinion, the commissioners can hold the executive director to account,” O’Keefe said. “They can remove them if necessary.”
Those election commissioners would have their own political affiliations. Professor Milita scoffs at the idea of any government office being entirely apolitical.
“There’s no such thing as nonpartisan in this country,” Milita declared. “The best we typically hope for is bipartisan. Even if someone doesn’t have the party label by their name on the ballot, they almost assuredly have an ideological slant, a partisan loyalty, but that’s OK as long as they are not doing their job in a way that benefits that party.”
The Republican Party’s Connie Beard said having the office run by an elected officeholder creates a more direct line of accountability.
“That election authority would not be answerable to the voters,” Beard said. “That would be an appointed bureaucratic entity and we all understand the limitations of voter control over bureaucracy.”
O’Keefe added the League of Women Voters maintains the view that any office that serves an administrative function should be appointed.
“If it’s a policymaking function, we think that should be elected,” O’Keefe said.
Is GOP Helping?
The Libertarian Party's Suess said the Republican Party has helped the Libertarian cause by pushing the clerk’s office takeover, but he’s concerned the GOP’s involvement has turned the issue into a political football.
“We are very happy to have them on board, but I do think their involvement has made the conversation about whether or not to vote for this referendum a little more toxic than it would have been if it was a nonpartisan situation,” Suess conceded.
Regardless of how the vote Nov. 6 turns out, advocates seeking a nonpartisan election commission will still have oxygen.
Maureen O’Keefe with the League of Women Voters believes a “no” vote would provide more momentum for such a change.
“If it does not pass (that) would be a really ripe time to bring this in front of the voters again,” O’Keefe said. “We just think if we are going to do it, there’s a better way to do it and that would be making it an independent commission.”
Such a move would require a change in state law. The legislature set specific population guidelines to enable Peoria County to create a countywide commission. It would have to change the threshold to allow McLean County to do the same.
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