McHenry County clerk's office figures out why results were misreported

The McHenry County clerk's office has determined that the underreporting of votes in certain races across the county Tuesday night was because of changes made to the language on some ballots, which altered the spacing of the document just enough to interfere with machines' ability to read votes correctly.

While officials now are certain this was the cause of the issue, County Clerk Joe Tirio said his office decided to conduct a full, countywide recount of votes anyway out of an abundance of caution.

"I'm obviously I'm not in love with the fact this happened, but I'm not hiding the fact that it happened and we're going to do our best to get the right results out as soon as we possibly can," Tirio said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

Tirio said he had been hoping to finish the recount Thursday afternoon so they could offer post new election results that evening, but the task has taken longer than expected. He said they are on track to complete the recount about 6 p.m. Thursday and then they will need to compile new election results and run some tests to ensure they are airtight.

As of 5:45 p.m. Thursday, an update on the clerk's office Facebook page reported it was 75% through the recount.

New, correct results are to be posted to the county's election results webpage midmorning on Friday, Tirio said.

The county's tabulation machines are programmed to read votes off a ballot by looking for the darkened circles where each vote is supposed to be based on the design of the ballot, also known as "target areas," Tirio said.

Before Tuesday's election, a change was made to the description of the terms for some local school board races and this changed the format of some ballots just enough to throw off the location of those darkened circles, so that they no longer matched up with the "target areas" preprogrammed into the tabulation machines, he said. This resulted in votes cast in impacted school board races to be drastically underreported.

While this primarily affected some of the county's school board races, the results of other down-ballot races could also change when the new results are posted Friday morning, Tirio said.

"I think it's less likely that things that were near the top of the ballot will be affected, but things at or below the school level, some may be affected," he said. "So there's a chance that those races could have different outcomes."

Before beginning the recount Thursday morning, Tirio's information technology support staff reprogrammed the office's tabulation devices, so they would read the format of the county's various ballot styles correctly to ensure accuracy this time around, he said.

The impact of this formatting issue was seen most notably in the race for the Cary School District 26 board, in which two candidates were shown as having received no votes at all in some precincts, McHenry County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristina Zahorik said Wednesday. Those two candidates were Stacey Sault and Julie Jette.

The Cary school board race was what first caught one poll watcher's eye late Tuesday night as she was monitoring the results from local polling places. McHenry County District 1 Democratic Chairwoman Dee Darling said she was sitting at home watching the results roll in when she noticed some unusually low numbers.

"I'm a data person, so when graphs and data and figures aren't aligning, it sets off a red flag in my head right away," Darling said in an interview Thursday.

Specifically, she had heard from local voters who went in and voted for the impacted school board candidates that were then showing no votes, she said. She went through the data with the former chairwoman for District 1, Kathryn Potter, who confirmed her suspicions. They then brought their findings to Zahorik and finally to Tirio, she said.

"I sent that off to (Tirio) right away and he responded right away, and now here we are with a recount," Darling said.

The clerk's office spent much of Tuesday night and all day Wednesday trying to determine what had caused the extremely low numbers reported by Darling and whether it could have impacted other races beyond Cary, Tirio said. They ultimately scheduled a recount for Thursday morning.

Tirio invited three election judges from both the McHenry County Democratic Party as well as the McHenry County Republican Party to observe the recount, and an attorney from the local Democratic Party sat in on the proceedings as well.

The attorney, Jeannie Ridings, said Thursday's recount was very "cordial" and "transparent."

"It was refreshing to see that kind of candor," Ridings said. "Everybody is just working together to get some answers and the outcome will be what it is."

Darling, who also was present during the recount Thursday, agreed.

The recount entailed reopening roughly 90 bright blue boxes filled with the paper ballots from each polling place, counting to ensure that the correct number of ballots are inside each box and then feeding them into the machines to be tabulated once again, Ridings said.

When it comes to the initial reporting of election results, mistakes can happen, Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said.

"We're always mindful that the local election authorities really have to deal with a whole lot of stuff every Election Day, and we know that mistakes like this happen or that unexpected circumstances come up," Dietrich said. "I'm not trying to make excuses for the clerk's office up there, but that is something to keep in mind."

The clerk's office is made up of people who are human, Tirio said, adding that he would hope that the events following Tuesday's election have not shaken the confidence of local voters given that the misreporting of results was caused by a technological error and not by malicious intent.

"To imagine that something as complicated as an election will absolutely always happen without any problems at all is unrealistic," Tirio said. This is "why we have people like poll watchers and precinct committeemen. This gives them a chance to look at the results and to challenge us and gives us a chance to respond to those challenges."

This also is why the state gives local election authorities two weeks to present them with finalized election results, Dietrich said, to allow for more review time. Technically, state statute does not require local election authorities to make results public until this two-week window is up, but most do and voters have become accustomed to receiving that kind of information up front, he said.

Once the new results are posted, Tirio said the next priority is to look into how this formatting error went unnoticed and how they can make sure something like this does not happen again.

Every election, "we make changes based on what we learned," Tirio said. "The kinds of things that we learn usually aren't as dramatic as this sort of thing is so yes ... we are definitely going to be taking a closer look."

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