UPDATED: McHenry County clerk reports errors in reporting of local election results

Local Democratic Party chairwoman says issue is part of a ‘pattern’ with clerk’s office and should not have happened

The McHenry County Clerk’s Office has identified “anomalies” in the results of the April 6 election, causing some races to be “misreported” on the county’s election results page, according to a written statement sent out by County Clerk Joe Tirio Wednesday.

The results posted Tuesday night have since been removed from the site.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Tirio said votes in the impacted races were “underreported” Tuesday night and they do not yet know how widespread the issue may be.

As results were coming in, certain races seemed to have “fewer votes than we would expect,” Tirio said. “And again you’re looking at all these com[ing] in at once and there’s a lot of activity going on, so it occupies a space in your head to take a closer look at that in the midst of, you know, everything that’s going on.

He said they are 90% sure of what is causing the issue but did not want to release that information until they are 100% certain, adding that it is “absolutely able to be fixed.”

The issue was discovered late Tuesday night and the team worked into the early morning hours Wednesday trying to understand it further, Tirio said in the statement.

They still are working to determine “the full nature and scope of the issue” and are coming up with a plan to solve the problem, according to the statement, which was posted on the county’s election results page and the county clerk’s Facebook page.

The clerk’s office determined that the problem is exclusively affecting some – but not all – paper ballots, which the majority of McHenry County voters use as opposed to the more costly electronic ballot machines used in some precincts, Tirio said.

The statement said the errors were “brought to [the] office’s attention,” but McHenry County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristina Zahorik said it failed to communicate that it was her team who alerted the clerk’s office of the issues Tuesday night.

The McHenry County Democrats had volunteer poll watchers and other interested individuals who kept track of the races as the results came in Tuesday and they quickly noticed some strange things happening at three polling places in Cary.

The tallies posted on the doors of the polling places did not match up with what was reported online, she said.

These locations were Holy Cross Church, the Cary Park District and August Kraus Senior Center, she said. The numbers across multiple races seemed low, but the most obvious was the race for the Cary School District 26 board in which two candidates – Stacey Sault and Julie Jette – received either just a handful of votes or did not receive any votes at all across these three precincts.

“We had reports of people going in and voting and on the election results the candidates were showing they had no votes which, of course, can’t happen,” Zahorik said. “I mean even if they voted for themselves, they’d have a vote.”

It is difficult to do this kind of digging while also getting all of the county’s ballots tabulated and reported, Tirio said, but he said he and his team also noticed a few things Tuesday night that they thought might have been off.

When Zahorik reached out with her concerns, Tirio said they immediately decided to stay late and look into the matter further. While they still do not know the exact scope of the issue, they quickly realized that it extended beyond the three polling locations in Cary, Tirio said.

A recount is set for 9 a.m. Thursday, during which election judges and poll watchers from both parties will be present, as well as the McHenry County Democratic Party’s attorney, Tirio and Zahorik said. Sealed ballots will need to be reopened and tabulated through the county’s election software for a second time, Tirio said.

A partial recount of votes from impacted precincts will definitely be necessary, but Tirio said he is not yet certain whether a countywide recount will be in order.

From what he and his team had learned as of late Wednesday afternoon, he said he would bet that a full recount will not be necessary rectify the issue. However, unless they can prove without a shred of doubt that the issue occurred in isolated precincts, Tirio said they will just recount all of the county’s votes regardless to put voters’ minds at ease.

“At some point, it makes more sense for the credibility and confidence in the election to just redo the entire shootin’ match, and we’re prepared to do that,” he said.

Either way, Tirio said they expect to have new results posted by end of day Thursday “barring any unforeseen complications.”

Zahorik said the issue was just the latest in a “pattern” of neglect exhibited by the office since Tirio, a Republican, assumed the role of McHenry County clerk and recorder in November 2018.

“I don’t feel that they’re paying attention,” she said. “This is a pattern and practice with this clerk and the office, and it goes beyond a partisan issue; it’s just that we are the ones that are checking.”

She pointed to issues in past elections as well as two other instances this election in which voters were assigned the wrong ballot, meaning they could not vote in races for entities they support with their property tax dollars.

These two instances – one in Crystal Lake and one in Woodstock – were rectified in time for the voters who spoke up to cast the correct ballot, Tirio said, but Zahorik said others who may have voted before the problem was discovered were denied the ability to weigh in on those races.

The voters in question were victims of the, at times, imperfect process of how ballot styles are assigned, Tirio said, which is a reality that many counties face and which predates his tenure with the clerk’s office.

“I think that her statement is a little exaggerated,” Tirio said. “We appreciate people bringing what they see as issues to us, and we take those seriously and we act on them promptly.”

Tirio also received sharp criticism after the last local consolidated election in April 2019 for an error in the language of a referendum regarding the Marengo Fire Protection District, according to reporting by the Northwest Herald.

The Marengo Fire Protection District and Marengo Rescue Squad District both had referendums on April 2019 ballots that proposed raising property taxes to pay for benefit options for firefighters and paramedics. The language from the rescue squad’s referendum erroneously appeared on the ballot for both districts’ requests, according to reporting by the Northwest Herald.

At the time, Tirio pointed to some last-minute changes that were made to the ballot, but said that this was not an excuse for printing incorrect information.

The correct language was posted at the impacted polling places during the election and both referendums passed, but the error left the referendum open to be challenged if someone could prove that the incorrect information influenced the outcome.

As a result, the Illinois State Board of Elections had a conference call with the clerk’s office to advise them on how to prevent future election problems. Among other things, they discussed putting in an updated voter registration system and Tirio suggested using a double-entry method to avoid printing incorrect information on future ballots.

Election results also were mishandled by Tirio’s predecessor, former County Clerk Mary McClellan, who failed to include early voting numbers on the county’s public-facing election results website following the November 2018 election, according to reporting by the Northwest Herald.

When McClellan updated the website with the 33,000 missing votes on the Thursday after the election, the results of three major McHenry County races changed.

After being named as the county’s new clerk, Tirio said he would work to improve the accuracy of elections in McHenry County, calling the issue “disappointing.”

Even further back, the clerk’s office – also under McClellan at the time – experienced a number of problems that prevented them from reporting the results of the 2016 primary election until almost 48 hours after polls closed, according to reporting by the Northwest Herald.

This was the first time that the SBE was called upon to advise the McHenry County Clerk’s Office with the second coming just a few years later when Tirio’s administration misprinted the referendum in 2019.

Kelli Duncan

Kelli Duncan

Kelli Duncan is a reporter for the Northwest Herald covering county government as well as the communities of Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Marengo and Harvard. She has previously covered local politics, immigration and feature stories.