Suburban officials say threats to election workers are rare, but 'we have to be ready'

Suburban election officials say they are aware of a rise in threats against colleagues in other parts of the country, but say such behavior here is rare.

"We have not found that there is any disproportionate level of threats that have occurred over the past few years," said Ed Michalowski, deputy clerk of elections at the Cook County clerk's office. "In 2020, we received no remarks from election judges that said their safety was called into question."

While elsewhere in the nation election leaders have received death threats and other forms of intimidation, suburban election officials say nothing so overt has occurred locally.

"I can't say that we have not received any threats, but most of them did not cross the line," said DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek. "The concern I have is that the disinformation that's been said about our county is what's been said in the counties and states that have received those more serious threats. And while we have not experienced any staff departures, they have expressed concern about the environment that's created."

A recent study, compiled after interviews with nearly 600 local election officials nationwide by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, shows a third of those surveyed know a colleague who left because of fears for personal safety.

And the vast majority blame the spread of misinformation through social media for the growing animosity toward election officials, according to the study.

Because Illinois leans so heavily Democratic and is rarely contested nationally, some believe that may dampen the type of outrage seen in some swing states after recent elections.

"It could also be there's established practices here that haven't changed in many years," Michalowski said. "There were many new voting rules that were implemented in many of those contested states."

Lake County Clerk Robin O'Connor said she can't recall any election worker there complain of being threatened, and attributes that to "strong representation from both parties" among election workers who are "equally dedicated to the operations of elections."

Jack Cunningham, the longtime Kane County Clerk, said he can't recall being threatened personally, but added, "I have a little thicker skin than most election officials."

Taking precautions

Just because threats to suburban election officials haven't risen to the level seen elsewhere doesn't mean it won't happen, Kaczmarek argued.

"We have to be ready," she said.

She noted the national political climate has an effect locally. DuPage County normally carries standard liability insurance for any accidents at polling sites, but the county is not able to secure that insurance this year because of the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol.

"The timing of this policy's placement was just after the riots on the capital building (that) happened on January 6, 2021, causing carriers to consider that the likelihood of civil unrest would also increase the risk specifically at polling places," one insurance agent wrote in an email to Kaczmarek's office. "Because of that, many carriers have decided to exit the market space for special event coverage for polling places."

Tuesday, recently appointed Director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Craig Dieckman gave a presentation to the DuPage County Board's Judicial and Public Safety Committee on election security procedures. He said guarding against cyber attacks, combating disinformation campaigns and maintaining continuity of operations at polling sites are the chief priorities of his agency heading into the primary and general elections this year.

"It's our obligation to make sure we do everything we can to have a safe place when people go to vote," said Julie Renehan, the committee's chairwoman. "I think what we heard is there are many precautions and protocols going on behind the scenes to ensure that happens."

Over the past few years, it's been elected or appointed officials who have faced a greater number of threats. A Chicago man was convicted in 2016 of threatening former Republican state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton. An Oswego man received jail time for threatening former DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom in a series of phone calls in 2015.

In 2020, current DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin received a series of threatening voicemail messages that led to the arrest of a Chicago man.

Staffing challenges

Many election officials in the suburbs say COVID-19 and low pay have played a larger role in depleting the ranks of poll workers than fears of violence.

Cunningham is pursuing legislation that lowers the required number of poll workers to make it easier to fill those jobs.

"We're always trying to get election judges," he said. "It's always a struggle, but it's certainly been harder recently indeed."

Pay varies depending on the type of responsibilities, but the majority of Election Day poll workers in Kane County receive $250, Cunningham said.

He also noted anyone who will turn 16 before Election Day can serve as a poll worker, so his office has been recruiting at high schools throughout the area.

"That way they can make a few dollars toward college," he said.

In suburban Cook County, most workers receive $200 on Election Day, but experienced staff members with extra duties can make as much as $365 that day.

In Lake County, Election Day pay ranges between $140 and $180 depending on duties.

Kaczmarek said her office is seeking a significant pay hike for DuPage County election workers, most of whom receive $130 to work Election Day. DuPage is home to the second-highest number of registered voters in the state.

Kaczmarek said she is proposing the hike at Tuesday's county board meeting to increase pay in excess of $200.

"We are behind a lot of other counties," she said.

McHenry County pays between $190 and $300 for various Election Day work. Qualified students may receive $140.

In Will County, poll workers can receive $150 for Election Day service.

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