McHenry County primary election: 'Worst-managed' in decades or isolated problems?

Officials, voters demanding answers after technical, communication problems mar process

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One of the biggest stories to come out of Tuesday's election in McHenry County was the systemic problems with the voting process. The cascade of issues started with the opening of the polls at 6 a.m. with the failure in some precincts of the electronic poll books used to verify voters' registration, and continued into Wednesday.

As of late Wednesday – a full 24 hours after the closing of county polls that were extended 90 minutes by emergency court order – County Clerk Mary McClellan's office had yet to post the provisional ballots cast during that hour and a half. A number of county and state races were too close to call.

It's a given among veteran McHenry County candidates something always goes wrong in the county on Election Day. Waiting until late night or early morning for results that come in dead last compared with other area counties is expected.

However, longtime officials and leaders of the county's political parties said Tuesday's primary was the worst they have seen in a long time, courtesy of technical and communication problems that plagued the election from top to bottom.

McHenry County Republican Party Chairwoman Sandra Fay Salgado said party candidates, judges and rank-and-file voters are angry, concerned and confused over how the primary election unfolded.

"We have people over there right now, in the clerk's office. We're trying to understand what is going on right now, but we have received no answers regarding any of this," Salgado said Wednesday morning.

The very integrity of the election's results Tuesday are questionable, Democratic Party of McHenry County Chairman Michael Bissett said.

"It was the worst-managed election I have ever experienced living in McHenry County, and it's been 20 years. … I don't know why anybody would trust the results of the election yesterday," Bissett said.

McClellan, who was elected in 2014, said voting at most locations went "flawlessly," and the problems amounted to a few isolated incidents with the electronic poll books.

She reminded the public that more than 11,000 people voted early with the same equipment and no malfunctions.

"I understand there were issues, but there was good, too. It wasn't just bad," McClellan said.

For election judge Don Kaspari, the bad started five minutes after the polls opened at 6 a.m. His computer froze when he attempted to generate ballots for the first two voters of the day at Algonquin 35, in the basement of Home State Bank in Crystal Lake. A call to the county clerk's office to fix the problem reached the after-hours office message informing him the office would open at 9 a.m. It was 45 minutes before a tech support person got his computer fixed.

"This was my first time being a judge, but in plain common sense, we would have had an emergency contact number from the moment the polls opened to the moment the polls closed," Kaspari said.

An inability to reach people at the county clerk's office was a common complaint, and that lack of communication apparently went both ways, witnesses said.

Voter Julie Snave showed up at 6:02 a.m. at Grafton 11 at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake, but she and her son had to leave at 6:30 a.m. without voting – the school had not been opened early and poll workers were busy setting up. She began calling the clerk's office to ask whether the polls would be kept open longer. Like Kaspari, she never heard back from anyone.

Other voters spoke of problems with their ballots. The ballots for some voters in Johnsburg did not include the referendum on whether to increase the sales tax. The Republican primary ballot of Crystal Lake voter Kevin Anderson, who called the electronic check-in a "disaster," included the federal races but not the races for state and local candidates.

Polling time was extended 90 minutes by emergency court order, at McClellan's request, after some voters were turned away in the morning at some polling places because the electronic poll books were not working. But the extension was distributed haphazardly to precincts, when it was distributed at all, according to numerous accounts. In some cases, precincts were informed of the extension from the voters themselves.

Mark Ruda, the Democratic judge for Algonquin 35, found out about the extension from an email from the party, not the clerk's office. Another judge made repeated attempts to call the clerk's office, getting busy signals until 5 p.m., after which the message announcing the office was closed. The hotline number his precinct was given turned out to be the clerk's office main line, he said.

Workers at McHenry 21 had heard from voters that poll hours had been extended, but could not get confirmation from the clerk's office, said Chuck Wheeler, a McHenry County Board member and the precinct's Republican committeeman. When he told them hours had been extended when he dropped by after voting to bring them pizza, they decided it was official. But Wheeler said the workers, who had not heard anything all day from the clerk's office, began peppering him with questions.

"They were literally in an island operating on their own," Wheeler said.

Several precincts either never got the information or decided they could not confirm it and closed at 7 p.m., according to reports and voters who were turned away.

McClellan said the information was sent out to all precincts via chat software installed on the computers, and that every poll worker had been trained on how to use it.

Wheeler and Bissett, the county Democratic chairman, blamed much of what happened Tuesday on a lack of quality training on a lot of new systems for a lot of new judges.

Besides ensuring the final results are accurate, Bissett said, the election system in McHenry County is in need of a complete overhaul.

"I think we need to go back to square one and examine all the processes in place. Other collar counties are able to run their elections far more smoothly with far fewer problems. What are they doing right that we're not? … This isn't rocket science," Bissett said.