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posted: 6/1/2013 8:00 AM

Lake County officials starting to plan for new election commission

Lake County preparing for shift it didn't seek

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  • Aaron Lawlor

      Aaron Lawlor

  • Willard Helander

      Willard Helander

 
 

They didn't ask for it.

They certainly didn't want it.

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But now that the General Assembly has voted to remove election oversight from the Lake County clerk's office and give the responsibility to a bipartisan commission, local officials must figure out how to make it happen.

And soon, too.

"We will be looking to make the transition as seamless as possible and ensure Lake County voters receive the same exceptional election services," county board Chairman Aaron Lawlor told the Daily Herald in an email Friday.

The proposal was part of a voluminous legislative package of election-law changes approved by the House and Senate this week. The bill awaits Gov. Pat Quinn's signature. Quinn has said he'll sign it.

If he does, the first election to be run by the commission will be the general primary in March 2014.

The section targeting Lake County occupies just one paragraph in the legislation.

Any county with a population of more than 700,000 people as of the 2010 Census that borders another state and borders no more than two other Illinois counties must create a county board of election commissioners, the proposal states.

Only Lake County fits that description.

The proposal surfaced this week and moved quickly through the Capitol, despite opposition from Lawlor, Helander and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who leads his party's Lake County organization, was the only senator from Lake County who supported the bill. Link denied he was behind the legislation.

In the House, three Lake County representatives -- all Democrats -- voted for it. The county's five Republican lawmakers opposed it.

Elections generally are overseen by county clerks in Illinois. DuPage County and the cities of Aurora and Chicago are among the few communities with election commissions.

Lake County's panel must form 90 days after the law is enacted, according to the proposal.

Chief Judge Fred Foreman will put together the five-member panel, Lawlor said. It will consist of two Democrats, two Republicans and an additional member who could be from any political party.

No more than three members of the same political party can serve on the board, which would plan and oversee elections and voter registration.

Lawlor expects Foreman will name the commission members within 30 days of the law being enacted.

In a telephone interview, Foreman said he has not seen the proposed legislation and is unsure of its impact on the county. He plans to meet Monday with County Clerk Willard Helander to review the proposal.

"I'm hoping, after the meeting, I will get an idea of what the plan should be if the governor signs the bill," he said.

Lawlor will work with county administrators to determine how the commission and its staff will be funded.

Helander's office will be required to turn over all election information and documents to the new commission once it forms.

Contracts for election-related software, computers and other equipment are between the vendors and the county, not the clerk's office, so they shouldn't be affected, Helander said.

The impact on the staff in the clerk's office is not yet known, however.

Helander broke down into tears when talking about the single parents who work in her office and "have been cast to the curb" by the legislation.

"They don't know what the future holds," Helander said.

Many election employees are trained to perform other tasks in the clerk's office, Helander said, and county leaders are aware of that. But the commission will have final say about hiring, Helander said -- not the county board or administrator's office.

Aurora's election commission formed in 1934, after a city ballot issue was approved the previous year. It consists of two Republicans and a Democrat.

Executive Director Linda Fechner called the sudden and unexpected creation of a Lake County commission ironic, considering her agency fights "on a daily basis" to remain in existence.

DuPage County elections have been run by an independent commission since 1974. The three-member panel consists of two Republicans and a Democrat, based on county voting demographics, said Joe Sobecki, the commission's assistant executive director.

DuPage's panel was created by the county board after state legislation was introduced to allow such a move, Sobecki said. The motive for the change is lost to history, however.

Sobecki doubts Lake County voters will be directly affected by the change, once it takes place.

"In the polling place, I don't think they'll see a difference," Sobecki said.

• Daily Herald staff writer Lee Filas contributed to this report.

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