Crystal Lake resident Barb Kelley lives down the road from a park maintained by the Crystal Lake Park District. Her kids grew up going to the Crystal Lake beach and enrolling in park district programs. She has supported the entity with her tax dollars year after year for the past 50 years.
But when Kelley looked up her sample ballot to see the races she could vote on in the April 6 election, the Crystal Lake Park District board was not listed for the second time in a row. She had noticed it was missing from her ballot in the 2019 election as well.
“When you go to vote, it’s kind of a solemn process, and you don’t want to make a stir,” Kelley said.
The issue was brought to the attention of Kelley’s Democratic precinct committee person, Ruth Scifo, who discovered that some of Kelley’s neighbors also were likely missing the race from their ballots. Scifo then contacted McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio, according to an email obtained by the Northwest Herald.
While Kelley’s case was able to be rectified in time for her to cast her vote for her local park district board, other cases like hers inevitably go unnoticed every election until a voter notices a missing race and speaks up, Tirio said.
Hundreds of different “ballot styles” are used by McHenry County voters in a local election, Tirio said.
In the current system for assigning ballot styles, the clerk’s office uses district maps provided by the county’s taxing bodies – townships and school districts, for example – to determine the combination of taxing and non-taxing voting districts that various properties will fall into, he said.
Each unique grouping of districts is labeled with a geocode that is described by a range of addresses representing the homes that fall into that geocode.
“That geocode drives the different variations of ballots and each unique variation is a ballot style,” Tirio said.
Under this system, an address or even a whole block can be occasionally placed in the wrong bucket. Tirio described the reasons behind why these things happen as “part human error, part system design error.”
For example, voters who live at the edge of districts or whose properties straddle two districts might be assigned the wrong ballot style because someone read a district map incorrectly, he said.
The system design flaw, in Tirio’s eyes, is that the geocode method of determining voting districts and the personal identification numbers used by the treasurer’s office to determine taxing districts are separate from one another, he said.
This means that, if an area’s taxing district is modified due to a new residential development or shifting boundaries, those changes are not reflected in the system used to design ballots, he said.
When things like this are brought to light by vigilant voters, Tirio said his approach is to remedy the cases that have been brought forward and then to take a closer look at the surrounding area to see if there are others at risk of being impacted.
As of right now, the county does not have a better way of proactively preventing this kind of things from slipping through the cracks, he said.
This is a reality acknowledged by Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich, who said it is the responsibility of the clerk to get the correct ballot style in the hands of anyone impacted and inform other local voters and election judges of the situation in a timely manner.
“Every election, there tends to be around the state somewhere you will have problems like this that arise,” Dietrich said in an interview earlier this month.
In the April 6 election, Kelley and potentially some of her neighbors were impacted as well as a handful of Woodstock voters who did not have the race for Woodstock Fire/Rescue District board on their ballot despite being taxpayers to the agency, McHenry County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristina Zahorik said in an interview shortly after the election.
Woodstock Fire/Rescue District board candidate Joe Galli, who also is the local precinct committee person, said he was made aware of the issue by his neighbor who had gone to the polls to vote for him and discovered that his race was not on her ballot.
The Woodstock incident ultimately impacted “a handful” of voters, Tirio said. He said he and his team worked to remedy the issue so that impacted voters could still vote on Election Day.
Galli said he was especially frustrated by the issue because parts of his precinct had encountered similar problems in the 2019 local election. They brought the issues to the attention of the clerk back then and voters were reassigned with the correct ballots halfway through the early voting period.
Anytime something like this happens, nothing can be done for anyone who already voted using a ballot with incorrect races, Galli said. Those ballots cannot be recovered and a new ballot cannot be cast, Dietrich confirmed.
“People who show up and get the wrong ballot are disenfranchised,” Galli said. “It doesn’t get people motivated to show up and vote if they think that ‘why do I vote if the ballots not even correct?’”
Tirio said he has not yet had the chance to look into what may have caused this error and why it was not remedied when the area was first brought to his attention in 2019.
To avoid situations like this in the future, Tirio said he is planning to implement a new system this summer that will use the same personal identification numbers found on residents’ tax forms to link them to the correct ballot style, better aligning the systems used by the treasurer and the clerk’s offices.
This new system “will create more consistency in the districts and more accuracy in the districts,” he said.