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Election law angers county clerk

McHenry County Clerk Katherine Schultz has told the state that she will not comply with a controversial election “undervoting” law for the Feb. 2 primary.

Schultz told the Illinois State Board of Elections that the majority of the county’s voting machines cannot be equipped to properly comply with the law, which requires that voters be informed if they do not vote for the statewide constitutional offices of governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and comptroller.

The problem, Schultz said, is that the optical-scan machines used by the county cannot be programmed to reliably single out particular offices, so any races left blank by a voter, from Congress to precinct committeeman, will set off a notification that the ballot is incomplete.

“A lot of your voters are going to get the idea that they are being mandated to vote for those offices when they don’t want to,” Schultz said Thursday. “It also would remove the secrecy from the ballot in some cases.”

Schultz informed the election board in a Dec. 23 letter that her oath of office obligated her to avoid any action that could taint the election’s fairness. The General Assembly approved the provision as part of a 2007 overhaul of election code, but this is the first election since then for statewide offices.

Election board Executive Director Daniel White said he could not answer what consequences Schultz, who herself is running for re-election this year, could face. He said that the board’s position was that election law should be followed and said that a software “fix” was available to bring the county’s optical scan machines into compliance.

“We don’t make determinations on which laws are constitutional or unconstitutional,” White said Friday. “We thoroughly tested this with the cooperation of the vendor. We realized that this is not a perfect solution, but it was the best way to comply with present state law.”

McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi, whose office helped Schultz draft her letter, said he did not think the election board would take action against Schultz to take an action “... that mechanically, she cannot perform in sufficient time.”

Bianchi and Schultz said that the election board did not certify the proposed fix until the day before Thanksgiving, leaving inadequate time to install and test it in the county’s machines.

Schultz also said the “fix” was anything but – she wrote that it could “... lock voting machines and cause a loss of confidence in the electoral process.” Tests of Democratic and Green Party ballots were kicked back with notifications that races without party candidates were undervoted.

The county’s touchscreen voting machines comply with the law because they can be programmed to comply with the law, Schultz said. All polling places for early voting, which starts Monday, use the touchscreen machines.

Schultz said she was hearing from people who said they would not vote because of the law.

“That is the last thing I want to happen,” Schultz said.

Many of the state’s county clerks are upset about the law. Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden filed an injunction claiming that the law compromised voters’ right to a secret ballot, but a judge rejected it last month. A bill has been filed in the General Assembly to remove the requirement.

Lake County’s voting machine software is able to accommodate the new law, County Clerk Willard Helander said. But she called the law flawed and unnecessary and said it could mislead people who chose not to vote for a statewide candidate to think that they made a mistake.

“[The General Assembly] didn’t seem to care if you skip voting for Congress, County Board or sheriff, so there’s no equal protection. It seems to be a very flawed law. It’s Illinois at work,” Helander said.

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