Top McHenry County election official wants to hire armed guard to keep staff safe

‘The level of anger and violence aimed at the government, I can’t remember it ever being like this before,’ clerk Joe Tirio says

After a contentious 2020 election and national discussions around election security, McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio is hoping to make the safety of his office a priority ahead of the 2022 primary and general elections.

Tirio appeared before the County Board’s finance and audit committee last Thursday to discuss his office’s budget process and goals for 2022. A major focus for next year will be preparing for the elections and ensuring the safety of office and election workers.

“Throughout the country there has been – I’m happy to say, not so much in McHenry County thankfully – there have been a number of threats to election [workers],” Tirio said.

He is hoping to get approval from the county to hire a full-time armed security guard to keep employees of the clerk’s office safe. Tirio said his office receives calls and visits from people angry at his office, whether it be over elections or other matters the clerk’s office handles.

“This doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I don’t see much happening on the horizon that culturally makes it any better,” he said.

Threats to election officials have been a concern following the 2020 election after many people, including former President Donald Trump, claimed the results were manipulated to make Trump lose. Tirio cited recent comments from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland saying it is something federal law enforcement officials will be taking seriously as the 2022 elections approach.

“Maybe I’m over reacting, maybe I’m not, but the level of anger and violence aimed at the government, I can’t remember it ever being like this before,” said Tirio, a Republican.

Tirio said he had to “assert himself on a couple of occasions” into situations with angry constituents.

Discussions on how much the extra security guard would cost and how it would be funded will be ongoing throughout the budget process ahead of the new fiscal year that begins on Dec. 1.

County government offices are currently staffed by contracted security who have magnetic wands to check people. Deputies from the sheriff’s office also are usually present at county meetings.

How the county will handle next year’s June primary and November general election also could be impacted by Tirio’s desire to keep safety for his workers and the election a priority. He told County Board members the clerk’s office is not planning to make more drop boxes available for ballots in 2022, citing security concerns.

“It depends on the violence, and the concerns over fraud and coercion and tampering are just great. Finding good places and equitable places to put those drop boxes becomes a real challenge,” Tirio said.

McHenry County had five drop boxes last year at different locations throughout the county after Tirio initially said the county would only have one due to security and cost concerns. Last year, Tirio said the boxes were placed in locations with extended voting hours and improvements for population density could be made if the boxes were allowed to stay after the pandemic.

“It’s hard to say we’re preventing anyone from voting by not having boxes, but I think we’re adding a considerable amount of risk to the election by having more of those drop boxes,” he said last week.

The boxes became popular in 2020 during the pandemic as a way to drop off vote-by-mail ballots at a secure location while people could keep their distance from others. Boxes were usually placed outside county government buildings. Illinois state lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year allowing the boxes to stay for good in the state.

Tirio also said his office is preparing for vote-by-mail to be a popular option again in 2022 after 46% of Americans voted by mail in 2020, according to Pew Research Center.

In McHenry County, 28% of voters who cast a ballot for president did so through mail-in ballots, 41% did so during in person early voting and 26% in person on Election Day, according to McHenry County election data. The remaining ballots were either mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day or provisional ballots where the issues were resolved.

In Illinois, all voters are now to be given the option to sign up for permanent vote-by-mail.

“The recently passed legislation requires that we mail notices to all registered voters inviting them to be a part of a permanent vote-by-mail list,” Tirio said. “And a permanent vote-by-mail list specifically means if you sign up for this list, at every election, you will automatically be mailed a ballot until you move or you ask us not to send you more.”

He also is hoping to add a second high-speed ballot scanner for next year’s election. It would help the county count votes faster and give them a back up scanner should their main one run into problems, Tirio said.

The clerk’s office also is working to finalize election precinct redistricting to make the population of each precinct equal following last’s month’s release of census numbers. Tirio said the process will be finalized after state lawmakers draw new Congressional maps, but it’s not clear when lawmakers will do that.