Elections legislation spawns Lake County political battle
A political dispute over the future of elections in Lake County has consumed top officials, as its top Democrat favors turning voting control over to a new board and a bipartisan collection of other leaders is pushing back hard.
The Illinois Senate on Thursday approved lengthy statewide elections legislation that emerged this week. Tucked inside is a plan that would take away election supervision from County Clerk Willard Helander and create a five-member board to handle voting.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and chairman of the Lake County party, denied the idea was his.
"I know I'm getting blamed for it," Link said. "But I'm used to that."
Link argues having a commission approved by the county's head judge would take politics out of the elections process. The county clerk is elected on a partisan ballot, and Helander is a Republican.
"If it was up to me, you'd have a board of elections for any county," Link said.
County board Chairman Aaron Lawlor opposes the plan, and other officials are suspicious that the legislation itself is political.
State Rep. JoAnn Osmond, an Antioch Republican, called the legislation "insulting." She pointed out Helander was the first clerk in the state to push touch-screen voting, after the hanging-chad snafu of the 2000 presidential election.
"It's a little bit suspicious as to why we're being singled out," Osmond said.
The Senate approved the bill by a 32-20 vote, sending the legislation to the Illinois House. Link voted for it, and the rest of Lake County's delegation voted against it.
"We already have too many layers of government in the state of Illinois," said State Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat.
During the debate, state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, was asked why the board would be created by lawmakers and not by voters, as Illinois election commissions typically are.
"That seems to be the political will," Harmon said.
State Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican, disagreed and argued a new board could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Lake County and the leaders are adamantly opposed to this," Duffy said.
Link said it's up to the county board to decide how much the board will get paid, so the costs might be manageable.
How the idea will fare in the House is unclear. The legislation is far bigger than the Lake County provision and would allow for online registration of voters.
State Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, said she didn't know what inspired the legislation. She said Helander "does an excellent job" overseeing elections and admitted being surprised when the proposal surfaced.
Sente said she isn't fond of legislation that only targets one office or government agency. as this does.
"This is not my bill," Sente said. "I would not have proposed it."
Lawmakers are scheduled to finish their annual session Friday, so a House vote could come soon.