Saving Money, Disregarding the Law? Disagreement Over Sangamon County Election Practices

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In every election year – but especially presidential years – election officials face the difficult task of balancing the mission to serve voters and living within typically tight budgets. In Sangamon County (Springfield), IL the clerk’s cost-saving efforts are drawing criticism for not being authorized by law. The State Journal-Register has more:

State law apparently doesn’t provide for some money-saving measures used in Sangamon County during the March 15 primary, including having more than 25 polling places where in each location one set of election judges oversaw voting for two precincts.

Such “clustered voting” zones are specified for use in some elections, such as a consolidated primary or special municipal primary, but not in a general primary in a presidential election year, such as that conducted last month.

“The election code doesn’t appear to authorize clustering of precincts during the general primary,” Ken Menzel, general counsel to the State Board of Elections, said Monday.

He also said that the law calls for five election judges per precinct, except in certain elections – not including a general primary. The most judges assigned to any Sangamon County precinct on March 15 was three.

Menzel noted that it is fine to have more than one precinct in a polling place – but each of those precincts was supposed to have its own set of election judges for the primary.

Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Don Gray said clustering got good reviews during special balloting this summer to replace U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, who resigned. The ultimate election of U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, in the 18th Congressional District, cost Sangamon County more than $200,000 for it’s portion, Gray said.

And Gray, who was appointed to the office last year to replace Joe Aiello, who resigned to take a state job, said the use of only three judges per precinct in a primary predated his tenure.

“We’re all trying to do our very best to keep costs down and still strive for the very best in customer service,” Gray said.

As is usually the case, the clustering decision got pushback from various quarters:

Last week, Sangamon County Democrats began gathering signatures on petitions calling on Gray to publicly apologize for problems in the March 15 election – when the 43.4 percent turnout in the county far exceeded Gray’s predictions, and several precincts ran out of ballots. Gray got a circuit judge to keep polls open an extra 90 minutes that day, allowing time for more ballots to be delivered.

Given contested presidential primaries in both major parties, the primary yielded nearly 47 percent turnout statewide, and Gray has said the unexpected high turnout caused problems across the state.

The Democrats’ news release about their action last week said that Gray had violated state law by clustering precincts. Doris Turner, who chairs Sangamon County Democrats, also alleged the clustered precincts were targeted to areas with high minority or Democratic turnout.

Gray last week said there was no racial or political targeting, and reiterated that point on Monday, saying his original plan was to cluster all 29 two-precinct polling places in the county.

“We even ordered more Democratic ballots and put more election judges in the field that Friday before the election,” Gray said, where early voting trends indicated a higher turnout.

As it turned out, he said, there were fewer than three judges per precinct at 16 precincts in the county outside Springfield, 12 precincts in north and northeast Springfield, five precincts in east Springfield, nine precincts in the south and southeast portions of the city, and 14 on Springfield west and southwest sides.

The county will not face sanctions – partly because state law imposes requirements but not penalties and partly because there isn’t much enthusiasm for punishing efforts to live within a budget:

Menzel said the state also doesn’t allow clustering in special congressional elections, but it does allow the use of only three judges per precinct in those contests.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘illegal,’” he said of clustering, which is not “explicitly prohibited.” And he said there “really isn’t a sanction for what was done,” other than social or political “pushback.”

But, he added, “It’s always sort of a dangerous thing when you start departing from what’s authorized to be done. As we see here, you sometimes end up with negative consequences. The standards are there for a reason.”

Menzel did say that in the special congressional election, while clustering “doesn’t appear to be specifically authorized, it’s hard to really condemn them for doing something to try and keep their budget under control.”

The clerk is largely unapologetic, saying tight funds make clustering a necessity – though he noted there will be more people working the polls in the fall:

Gray said that in addition to spending more than $200,000 for the contest to replace Schock, the county may never receive the $25-per-judge payment from the state for the special election and the general primary, because of the state budget impasse. He said the clustering in the primary was a way to try to save the money not coming from the state. Most Sangamon County election judges are paid $150 for Election Day work. The county is paying each judge an extra $25 for working March 15 because of the extra time the polls were open.

Gray has noted before that same-day voter registration at every precinct also fed into long waits at polling places.

“We’re getting more and more mandates put on us that have fiscal implications,” he said of clerks across the state.

But as for the March 15 voting in his own county, he said, “I recognize the fact that there were miscalculations and mistakes, and I bear full responsibility for those.”

And, Gray said, in the Nov. 8 general election, the plan has been and remains to have five election judges at each precinct.

Resource allocation (which usually focuses on Election Day shortages of things like ballots or voting machines) is a crucial and extremely difficult skill for election administrators – even more so in tight fiscal times; to the extent that formal law and policy mandates certain allocations, it may make sense to review whether and how those requirements are necessary. Moreover, such requirements create a “bright line” that can be used against an election official after an election but may not make much sense before. The flip side, however, is that election officials (in the absence of that bright line) are susceptible to second-guessing if their allocations are mistaken and things go wrong on Election Day.

Add this to the long list of things that current and future generations of election administrators will need to master as they do their jobs … stay alert – and stay tuned!

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