Guest Column: Primary election stinks worse than Winnebago Landfill

March 28, 2012

By Nichole Larison Sammon
Fox Ridge Subdvision resident

The 2012 primary election with the ballot size error and the handling of the known error is just another example of Winnebago County government incompetence.

While other parts of the state simply trimmed the extra one-sixteenth-inch off the ballot before allowing a citizen to vote, our election officials allowed the faulty ballots to be cast and then pile up for a hand vote, with apparently no official plan in place to count the ballots later.

As seen in e-mails going around to the candidates themselves from Jim Thompson, the Winnebago County Republican Committee chairman, the issue was known early on election day. From an e-mail time stamped 1:46 p.m., Thompson wrote: “Each precinct will be counted w/ two employees and a D and R observer. We need VOLUNTEERS to serve as observers, and it may be a very long night. Even if you can only stay a few hours, even that will help. I am asking for at least ONE volunteer from each campaign — can’t be the candidate. If we can get two, we can maybe set up shifts for 7-9:30 and 9:30 to ??? Email me who will be representing your campaigns as soon as possible….Isn’t life fun!!!”

From this citizen’s perspective, this is neither fun nor acceptable behavior for election officials. Instead of working to fix the issue before a vote was cast, like many neighboring counties, our election officials were busy rounding up VOLUNTEERS as early as 2 p.m. to assist in the long night of counting before the polls even closed.

A second e-mail from Thompson at 1:54 p.m., just a few minutes later, confirmed the constant change in IDEAS of how best to conduct the count, “OK — UPDATE. County Clerk MAY need extra workers, not just to observe but actually record votes. One D, One R. Won’t know until later this evening. Please have someone designated w/ your campaign who can come down to help out — and let me know best number to use — I will try and respond as soon as I hear that additional workers are needed. They CAN be PCs on the ballot — just not the main candidates (co. board, on up). Wait an hour, things will probably change again!!!”

At 8 p.m., according to all who were present, numerous people, including attorneys, candidates, candidate representatives, and who knows who, flooded into the administration building to start the process. The Rockford Register Star called it a “slew of people.” One can only guess if the largest and wealthiest campaigns had the most representatives present for the affair. All media were banned from recording the process for the public, so no full record exists of all who were present and all actions taken that night. With zero precincts officially fully reported or counted for Winnebago County, the “slew of people” had a large job ahead of them. According to many interviews with Margie Mullins, the group planned to hand copy or remake the ballots to feed them through the machine. There’s just one small issue.

According to state election policy, the only individual allowed to handle used ballots is the voter himself/herself, as they push it through the electronic machine. In the case of a hand count, the only individuals allowed to handle ballots are election judges and officials. By allowing everyone who had apparently nothing better to do late at night to come and assist, Winnebago County undermined our election and quite possibly invalidated any results. This haphazard approach allowed individuals with vested interests right in the room. How can we, as the public, possibly, trust the results, whether we agree with the official outcome or not? By just looking at one candidate race, the numbers and the reports do not seem to add up.

A little after 9 p.m., the following numbers were reported by the various news organizations. Fox News reported 92 percent counted with 191 out of 208 precincts reporting. WREX reported 65 percent counted with 135 out of 208 precincts reporting. Rockford Register Star reported 46 percent counted with 96 out of 208 precincts reporting. All stating in the race for Winnebago County Chairman, Scott Christiansen had 13,357 votes and Mike “C” Castronovo had 7,747 votes.

In looking at the numbers, how could 92 percent, 65 percent, and 46 percent reported all add up to the same number of votes for each candidate?

At around 10 p.m., Tuesday, March 20, the Winnebago County Chairman race was called by many local news organizations. The Rockford Register Star called it Scott Christiansen’s birthday gift, while Fox filled the television screen with Scott Christiansen giving his triumphant speech. All while the county administration building was full of unqualified and possibly prohibited people hand copying and remaking ballots for counting. All while the unofficial numbers coming out of the county show 0 out of 113 precincts fully counted, or a total of only 9,978 votes counted.

At 6 a.m., Wednesday, March 21, the numbers from the official election boards showed only 46 percent fully counted with Rockford counted at 100 percent with 3,829 for Mike “C” Castronovo and 7,297 for Scott Christiansen and Winnebago County with 0 precincts fully counted showed 3,918 for Mike “C” Castronovo and 6,060 for Scott Christiansen. Early estimations of the number of votes to be copied and then counted all day were estimated from 2,000 to as high as 5,000 votes by the news media, but as the votes were tallied, that number somehow grew.

By 6 p.m., according to sources in the room, the counting continued with more votes to copy and more votes to count. Kevin Haas sent a tweet out confirming rumors stating, “New hope from Margie Mullins is to have counting finished by 8 p.m. Original estimate of 5,000 ballots was low. Unclear how many more.”

By midnight, the votes were tallied and posted online. The hasty proposal of hand copying and creating ballots was over, and the unofficial votes were announced, Scott Christiansen with 10,102 and Mike Castronovo with 6,365. In the end, it seems 6,489 votes were counted in this particular race between election night and the next. In looking at the different official Republican Primary vote tallies, another interesting fact appears. Apparently 1,651 more people voted for the Winnebago County Chairman position but did not vote for the Winnebago State’s Attorney race. Were 1,651 citizens that passionate about the chairman race or that indifferent to who the new state’s attorney might be? Interesting undervote.

Will we, as citizens, really know how many votes were counted by the machine correctly and how many were counted by this new ad hoc procedure that according to e-mails and tweets was rewritten a few times along the way? We may never know all who were present in the mad dash to the administration building on election night, nor the complete list of folks in the room copying and creating ballots on the following day. Our various news organizations certainly are in no position to assert their grasp on the situation, as each reported conflicting numbers and inaccurate information throughout the process, not to mention they themselves were banned at times from observing the process.

In the end, Winnebago County citizenry is left to speculate on those answers and hope for the best as we move toward election night in November. The only problem, some candidate have no adversary in November, and the winner has already been crowned. I guess the Rockford Register Star prophesied correctly, it was Scott Christiansen’s birthday present after all. Unless there exists a citizen with some guts, the independent spot is still open for this and many races for our county government.

From the March 28-April 3, 2012, issue

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