Report: Human error at fault for McHenry County election issues

Employee printed different version of ballot than what was used to program the machines that read, count votes, report released by McHenry County Clerk’s Office shows

McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio, center, reaches into a secure blue box for a handful of ballots inside the voting tabulation room at the McHenry County Administrative Building on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Woodstock.

McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio released a report Wednesday on the problems his office encountered in reporting the results of the April 6 election, which led to a countywide recount of votes and ultimately changed the projected outcome of a number of school board races.

Tirio presented the report at a meeting of McHenry County Board members Thursday morning and began by apologizing to residents.

“I know they expected to have the results on election night, and I apologize that they were not entirely accurate,” he said Thursday. “A more sincere, heartfelt apology to the candidates that were negatively affected – those that thought they had won and found out the following day that they hadn’t.”

The report gave a step-by-step look into how the clerk’s office was alerted of the issue – which caused the votes for a number of school board races and other down-ballot races to be misreported – and what they did in the two days that followed.

This new report also gets to the heart of what caused the erroneous reporting. Essentially, the file that was used to print ballots was an earlier version than the ballot design used to program the county’s vote counting machines, or “tabulators,” according to the report. The newer version of the file had additional information about the term duration for school board candidates.

This added information shifted the ballot’s text so that it no longer matched up with the “target areas” programmed into the county’s tabulators, which tell the machine where to look for votes, according to the report and comments made by Tirio.

“After careful investigation and interviewing involved parties, it was determined that an employee had provided the wrong version of a file for ballot printing,” according to the report. The employee at fault remained unnamed.

There are hundred of ballot styles that must be created every election cycle to list the correct races for all of the county’s precincts, Tirio said last week. These hundreds of files often have to be revised many times, leaving room for human error, according to the report.

“Compounding the problem is that, for security purposes, the election is managed on two, completely separated networks,” according to the report.

It was further determined that early voting was not impacted, but vote-by-mail voting was.

Tirio said at Thursday’s meeting that he will be submitting the report to the Illinois State Board of Elections to get feedback on what his office might do differently moving forward.

His report gave a few ideas for how to ensure a similar error does not happen again, such as by using ballot comparison software that highlights any changes on different versions of a ballot. It also suggested procedural changes, including the use of a “version indicator” on printed ballots and protocols around the transportation of files from one system to another.

The report’s timeline begins on the night of April 6 when Tirio and his staff were alerted to the problem by a Democratic precinct committee member who said “two candidates in a school board race had received zero votes, despite the fact that voters had confirmed having voted for these candidates on Election Day and at this particular location.”

His staff immediately began comparing data, running tests and contacted the vendor of the election software used by the county, according to the report. They scheduled a partial recount for the next day – April 7 – at 2 p.m.

After realizing that the issue was more widespread than originally thought, they set a full recount for Thursday morning and invited election judges from both local political parties to oversee the process, according to the report.

The clerk’s office staff spent the day Wednesday working with their IT analyst and software vendor to understand the cause of the issue and develop a plan to correct it before the recount, according to the report.

Once they pinpointed the cause, they were able to reprogram the “election definitions” that the tabulators use to read ballots and proceed with Thursday’s recount, according to the report.

New results were posted to the county’s election results page Friday.

The issue impacted many local school board races, some of them enough to change the outcome, according to the new results. It also impacted other down-ballot races such as park district boards or library boards, but not enough to change the outcomes.

Tirio had predicted that the recount might impact other races that appear lower on the ballot, because of the chain reaction caused by the formatting error. One outlier was the Trout Valley Village Board race, which appears above school board races on the ballot but still was impacted.