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Ballot Problems 'Embarrassing,' But Officials See No Evidence Of Malice


This week, authorities in Illinois are finalizing the results of this month’s primary elections.

Turnout was record-setting, and that left an unknown number of voters disenfranchised by ballot shortages and long waits at the polls. But officials say they don't believe there was any nefarious intent.Brian Mackey reports on some of the problems during Illinois' primary election.

The problems in Springfield are emblematic of what happened statewide: mainly issues with unexpected interest in same-day voter registration, and a shortage of ballots.

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  Sangamon County saw a fourfold increase of registrations over a pilot program last time around — more than 1,200 people. County Clerk Don Gray says that overwhelmed his office.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook from the start of election morning all the way through to when polls closed of individuals who needed more information about the registration process," he says.

Meanwhile, out in the voting precincts, turnout was surging. But Gray says it was hard to prioritize how to respond to those problems because his phones were overwhelmed.

Gray says his office met the legal requirement to double the number of ballots from the previous primary, but it turns out that was not nearly enough.

“We’re finding now in analysis that Republicans were up 48 percent comparable to ’12, and Democrats were double the amount of what they did in ’12," he says.

That meant printing thousands of extra ballots: "We started printing about 10 o’clock in the morning."

Gray says such big changes in turnout make for challenging calculations. You want enough ballots so everyone can vote, but you don’t want to waste a forest worth of trees on paper that’ll never be used.

“You know you want to try and find the right balance between doing the fiscally responsible thing with tax dollars in relation to what you’re spending and what you believe you’re going to utilize for the day," Gray says. "Even at this past primary, 43 percent in Sangamon County is historic level of turnout combined in both parties, but it is only 43 percent."

Jim Tenuto, with the State Board of Elections, says his office fielded complaints about shortages on Election Day, but not much since then.

"it's just like a perfect storm, so to speak: You had two hotly contested presidential elections. A lot of publicity. Same-day registration. It seemed like a lot of young people registered on the same day. A lot of people waited until the last minute to register — maybe they got excited about the primary," he says.

Tenuto says the Board of Elections has not seen any evidence that the problems were an attempt at voter suppression.

“There’s been nothing to indicate that it was any kind of conspiracy or something done to favor one party or the other," he says. "It appears that the county clerks just did not estimate the turnout, and did not have enough ballots available."

Tenuto says there were problems in four jurisdictions: Sangamon County, Kendall and Effingham Counties, and Adams County. That's where Jon Barnard is state's attorney. He says he heard so many reports of disenfranchised voters that he convinced a judge to allow voting for days after the election — but that process was stopped by the Fourth District Appellate Court.

Even though he says he's disappointed, he too says he doesn't think there was any intentional voter suppression.

"It's an embarrassing scenario. It's an uncomfortable scenario. And again one which I don't believe any county clerk would want to be found in," he says. "So I don't believe — and I'm not even remotely convinced, or even remotely suspicious — that any of the counties where this happened involved intentional conduct by the county clerk."

Barnard's plan would have allowed voters who swore they could not vote on election day to cast late ballots. He says he respectfully disagrees with the Appellate Court — and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who prompted the justices to step in — and maintains people should have been allowed to vote.

"We should do everything we can to protect that right to vote. It is sacred," Barnard says.

Officials say they’re still trying to figure out how to prevent these problems next time around.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.