‘Human error’ kept candidate’s name off ballot

By Lonna Saunders

Contributing Writer

Nancy Strain, executive director of the City of Rockford Board of Elections, said it was “human error” that kept a candidate for the Democratic precinct committeeman Ward 3, Precinct 6, off the March 16 primary ballot.

Strain said her “entire office takes responsibility” for the mistake that kept candidate Lisa Sutherland’s name from appearing on the ballot.

Former Chairman of the Winnebago County Democratic Party Willie Bell, now head of the local chapter of the NAACP, said, “Someone deserves to be fired over this.”

To date, no one has been fired or disciplined for the error, and Strain has declined to release the names of the two employees involved. She said neither the ballot printer nor the Winnebago County Clerk’s office are to blame.

According to Winnebago County Clerk David Johnson, the left-behind candidate Sutherland had filed her paperwork on time, and everything was in order. She was a duly qualified candidate, which Strain confirmed.

When Johnson sent his certification of the candidates to the Board of Elections, as required by law, Sutherland’s name was on that list along with all the others.

When the Board of Elections received the certification of the candidates, one employee was to read the names off the certification list to another employee, who checked it against the ballots. The process was conducted to ensure all the names on the certification list appeared on the ballots. Apparently, the two employees missed a name, because Sutherland’s name did not appear on the ballot.

Sutherland, who has worked to educate voters and get out the vote as a deputy registrar for the NAACP, said she hasn’t made a decision on what action, if any, she might take. She said her first priority was to get her son into a good college, a decision she said would need to be made by May l.

Sutherland’s name appeared on the list of precinct committeeman candidates published alongside the sample ballots before the election in two local newspapers. Sutherland did not receive a sample ballot in the mail before the election because it is not the policy of the City Board of Elections to send sample ballots to precinct committeeman candidates. Candidates for other offices, however, receive sample ballots as a further check.

Hinshaw & Culbertson attorney Thomas Lester said a precinct committeeman has 10 days following the completion of the canvass of the ballots to file an election contest. That was completed on March 24, according to Strain. However, in this case, Lester said, Sutherland may not have had standing to file an election contest because, according to state law, only those whose “names appear on the ballot” have the right to file an election contest.

Since Sutherland’s name did not appear on the ballot, through no fault of her own, she could find herself in a “catch-22” situation.

Sutherland, in fact, did not file an election contest. Lester said she still has the option of pursuing other legal remedies, such as a civil rights lawsuit in either federal or state court.

Dan White, head of the State Board of Elections, said neither the state nor the local elections board have the power to order a special election. A candidate would have to go to court to seek such an extraordinary remedy, he said.

Winnebago County Democratic Party Chairman Greg Tuite said he has the power to appoint Sutherland to a Democratic precinct committeeman spot, and has offered her that option. However, only elected precinct committeemen, not appointed ones, are permitted to vote in the Democratic Party convention. The convention was held in late March, so Sutherland has missed that opportunity.

Bell said being appointed as a precinct committeeman isn’t the same as being an elected one. He said being an elected committeeman is more desirable.

“She wants to work in her own precinct, in her own neighborhood,” Bell said. “People don’t know anything about her in another precinct, and she has more clout working in her own precinct.”

Tuite said he offered Sutherland an appointment in a precinct close to where she lives and one with more weighted votes apportioned to it than her own precinct. Sutherland is still contemplating the offer.

Sutherland said a special election or appointment is not necessarily what she is looking for. “It is a matter of principle,” she said. “I want to make sure this does not happen to anyone else.”

Ryan Brauns, one of the city’s election commissioners, said: “People make mistakes. That’s why they put erasers on pencils.”

Brauns said Sutherland waited very late in the day to contact the Board of Elections. He said if Sutherland had contacted the Board of Elections earlier on election day, it would have been able to replace the ballots with new ones with her name on it in her precinct.

Sutherland’s Democratic opponent, Jack Crook, who was re-elected by default, said if he had been in Sutherland’s shoes, he would be down at the Board of Elections office trying to get to the bottom of why it happened.

Crook said: “If I thought there were some sinister motivation behind it, I wouldn’t be satisfied, but I feel there can be human error, too. The question is why it happened.

“When you run against yourself, it doesn’t give the voters a choice,” Crook added. “It wasn’t as interesting as it could have been.”

Strain said her office will now implement some new procedures to ensure such a snafu doesn’t happen again. Strain said, for example, that having two teams of employees check the certification list against the ballots and written marks will now be kept of those checks.

John Strandin, City of Rockford communications director, issued this statement by Mayor Doug Scott: “The mistake is unfortunate. I know Lisa Sutherland, and I know she is committed to helping out the community. The Election Board acknowledged that a mistake was made. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find a spot for her on the Democratic committee to take advantage of her commitment and willingness to serve.”

In response, Strain said: “I certainly agree with it fully. It was a terrible mistake.”

At press time, The Rock River Times had a call in to Scott, asking if there would be any further investigation into the matter. Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said his office would only become involved if proof were presented of malicious intent, fraud or disenfranchisement. Logli said this was the first he had heard of the situation.

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