Split vote, but DuPage disbands election commission

After years of trying, county board members scored a consolidation victory Tuesday by dissolving the DuPage Election Commission and transferring its functions to the county clerk's office.

But the timing of the move divided the county board along party lines - with 11 Republicans voting in favor of an immediate merger and seven Democrats arguing unsuccessfully to wait until after the April 2 election.

The action came more than four decades after the clerk's office was stripped of its election duties to create the commission.

"This action returns governance of the election process to a model that is used by 100 other counties in the state," Chairman Dan Cronin said.

Board members debated the issue for more than an hour. The Democrats wanted to postpone the transition at the request of County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek, another Democrat, who said it would give her office time to prepare.

"I'm up for the challenge," Kaczmarek told the board. "I just believe the best time to do it is after we have a implementation plan in process. Right now, we don't have that."

She said she needs to hire new staff for the clerk's office to replace employees who quit after her election and hoped to address that before the merger.

"We just need a little bit more time," she said.

"I think we all agree that we want this consolidation to happen," board member Sadia Covert said. But the move will be complicated, she said, and "I think it's a good idea to wait until after April."

But Republican board members argued the merger should take effect immediately because of past troubles at the commission. There were serious problems during previous elections, including a blunder that delayed results for hours during the March 2018 primary.

"I don't know what we are waiting for," said board member Jim Zay, a Carol Stream Republican. "What we are doing today is getting rid of three commissioners that are in charge of the election commission and putting one person in charge - the county clerk."

Zay said many residents, including Kaczmarek, have demanded change at the commission for years.

Board member Jim Healy said the commission staff did a good job during the November election and those same employees will be there for the municipal election.

"I think what will happen is that it will be run efficiently by the staff that's already there," the Naperville Republican said.

The county board had to get state law changed to disband the commission. When it did, Healy said, promises were made to lawmakers and residents that changes would be made.

Still, board member Elizabeth Chaplin urged the board to wait.

"This election commission has been in place for decades," Chaplin, a Downers Grove Democrat, said. "I don't see what difference pushing this off until May would have."

But board member Sam Tornatore said he voted for the immediate merger to fulfill a promise. "We have discussed this for years," the Roselle Republican said.

After making changes at the commission, Cronin floated the idea of the merger in 2016 as a way to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Initially, he sought to consolidate the offices and create a bipartisan panel to oversee elections. But an attempt to change state law failed in 2017 after Democratic leaders opposed the plan.

So county board members put an advisory referendum question on the March 2018 ballot that asked voters if the commission should simply be dissolved. Roughly 56 percent supported that nonbinding ballot question.

The ballot results - along with the problems at the commission - helped convince state lawmakers to approve legislation last summer that allowed DuPage to dissolve the commission after Jan. 1.

After the vote, Kaczmarek said she's "eager to take on the challenge."

"My plan now is to do what I do well," she said, "and that is research, collect facts, talk with people and try to develop implementation plans. That's what we're going to work on."

Dan Cronin
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