There are a lot of people in DuPage who have worked tirelessly to keep the cause of impartial local elections in the news and to hold the DuPage County Election Commission accountable for problems. The problems can involve complex issues at times, and the ‘watchdogs’ deserve credit for their efforts. Unfortunately, the DuPage Election Commission too often provides grist for their mill.
DuPage County Election Commission Background
While the three-member DuPage election board is often referred to as “bipartisan” and “independent,” as in last Friday’s Chicago Tribune article, it in fact has two Republicans that cycle through and one Democrat, the Democrat. Current Vice Chair and Democrat Jeanne McNamara has sat on the commission almost since its inception January 29, 1974 (she joined the board in 1976). The board members are appointed by, and serve at the pleasure of the DuPage County Board Chairperson, currently Robert Schillerstrom, who legally must pick a single Democrat for one of the top two board positions.* While I cast no doubt on Jeanne McNamara’s political sympathies, it would be disingenuous to suggest anyone could be a strong, effective and vocal advocate for Democrats while facing a 2-1 GOP voting bias, serving at the pleasure of a top DuPage County GOP official and working for an organization whose budget is controlled by the Republican DuPage County Board members. That Jeanne has cast dissenting votes at times, and has served over thirty years, is a testament to her perseverance at the least.
Overly Partisan Appearances
The DuPage County Election Commission is, by law, a bipartisan organization. But partisanship should not get in the way of conducting, and appearing to conduct, impartial elections. As Election Commission Executive Director Robert Saar observed early this year to the Naperville Sun about his own position and charge, “This is a nonpartisan office and it [has] nothing to do with a political party.” On this count, however, the commission has failed in its appearances and on more substantive counts. While the issues can get complex, the problems listed below are simple to understand:
- In 2004 6th Congressional Democratic Primary winner Christine Cegelis was left off of the official sample ballot – and put in as a state senate candidate. The sample ballot, produced by the DuPage County Election Commission, was distributed to 43 newspapers, printed, and reached voters throughout the 6th District. Cegelis’ Republican opponent, Henry Hyde, was listed as facing no opposition. The commission and Executive Director Robert Saar acknowledged their mistake – but beyond acknowledging the mistake, there was never a clear accounting of how this came to happen, how it could be prevented in the future, or a reprinting of the corrected sample ballot in the newspapers as a fair way of addressing the mistake.
- The Commission was rightly criticized for giving a no-bid $30,000 contract to GOP operative Frank Salvato (and here). I don’t know whether there was anything partisan about the voter outreach that Salvato was hired to do. I do know that a no-bid contract to a highly partisan media operative with no apparent experience in “public service campaign[s] about voter registration” may be legal but appears both partisan and corrupt.
- The Commission fights attempts to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to review ballots and related election materials sought by the public to help determine if the elections are administered fairly and legally. Surely if there is nothing to hide, the commission should make access to the ballots and related information at least as accessible as neighboring counties that offer more information online and make FOIA requests more accessible.
- While there can be honest disagreements about the security of different electronic voting systems, surely the commission could have considered the well-publicized problems around Diebold systems (in partisanship, technical malfunctions and security) that led California to reject Diebold, and chosen another manufacturer without these liabilities that would leave a paper trail for recount purposes. DuPage choosing Diebold systems in the face of such well-publicized problems is inexcusable.
On its website the tagline of the DuPage County Election Commission says, “Assuring the consent of the governed.” It is a noble sentiment, in keeping with the idea that democracy depends on the people’s faith in fair elections – that elections accurately represent the people’s “consent.” The DuPage County Election Commission should do better to live up to its democratic goal – in deed and in appearance.
* I appreciate Citizen Advocacy Center lawyer Sarah Klaper’s help in understanding the legal structure of the DuPage County Election Commission. While I believe I’ve got it right, any mistakes in this understanding, like everything else in this blog, are my own.