Illinois Conservative Group Denies Sitting On People's Ballot Applications

But state Democrats suspect a voter suppression effort.

The Democratic clerk of Rock Island County in Illinois says a conservative group allowed more than a thousand completed vote-by-mail applications to sit in a post office box for three weeks before someone raised questions about it.

“We think they had no intention of ever delivering it to us,” Karen Kinney said in an interview.

Kinney said she learned of the problem last month after hearing from voters who hadn’t received their ballots. She said the 1,500 applications would have continued to languish if she hadn’t contacted law enforcement.

Illinois law allows outside groups to send out ballot applications to potential voters, who can fill out the forms in order to receive a vote-by-mail ballot from their county clerk’s office. The controversy in Illinois is over how long the completed applications allegedly sat in a P.O. box without being handed over to the clerk. State Democrats say it looks like it could be a voter suppression scheme.

“When you solicit absentee ballot applications and then sit on them, that’s about the only thing you can call it,” Steve Brown, spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party, said in an interview.

Pat Hughes, the co-founder of the Illinois Opportunity Project, the conservative group that distributed the applications, said the criticism is bogus because the applications have, in fact, been submitted to the clerk.

“It’s a red herring,” Hughes said. “It’s a pretext for harassment.”

The Illinois attorney general’s office last week warned voters that if they filled out vote-by-mail ballot applications, they should “stay alert and monitor whether they then receive a ballot in the mail.” The office, which is headed by Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, sent several letters last month to the Illinois Opportunity Project demanding information about its vote-by-mail efforts in Rock Island and six other Illinois counties.

Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said people were confused because the group’s vote-by-mail solicitation didn’t say who it was coming from.

“Because the Illinois Opportunity Project’s mailings do not identify that organization and, instead, are sent from ‘[Name of County] County Vote By Mail Center’, they have led to voter confusion regarding whether they are official documents from the counties,” Possley said in an email.

The Illinois Opportunity Project has ties to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican. One of the group’s co-founders, the conservative radio host Dan Proft, also heads up a big-spending political action committee that is funded partly by Rauner. The governor is looking to chip away at Democrats’ supermajority in the state legislature. Madigan’s father, state Rep. Michael Madigan (D), has been speaker of the Illinois House for decades.

The Illinois kerfuffle is one of several voting controversies, some more serious than others, unfolding in various states as Election Day nears.

After finding a number of allegedly forged applications in Indiana, Republican officials there have warned that a Democratic voter registration drive could be committing fraud. In North Carolina, the NAACP has alleged in a lawsuit that the state illegally canceled the voter registrations of thousands of black residents. And based on the fact that polls show him likely to lose, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed the election will be “rigged” in favor of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Hughes said the Illinois Opportunity Project mailed applications to voters on Oct. 11, and picked up the returned applications from the Rock Island Post Office on Oct. 26, after receiving inquiries from law enforcement. Hughes says the group didn’t break any laws by not grabbing the applications sooner. He also says that because the group distributed applications on the 11th and collected them on the 26th, it disproves the Democratic clerk’s claim that the applications languished for three weeks.

Mark Curley, postmaster for the Rock Island Post Office, corroborated Hughes’ timeline.

“There was no three weeks,” Curley said. “They didn’t languish.”

Rock Island Democratic Party chair Doug House said that a preliminary analysis of absentee ballots processed by the clerk on Oct. 27 showed they are mostly from Democrats and older voters.

“Why in the world would a dark money group that supports Bruce Rauner target high turnout Democrats and independents like this unless they wanted to suppress voters?” House said in an emailed statement. “We’ve closely examined the related facts and I am convinced that Bruce Rauner’s allies are trying to win one of the most competitive State House seats in Illinois through dirty tricks, deception and possibly illegal voter suppression tactics.”

Kinney said the deadline for Illinois clerks to receive vote-by-mail applications is Thursday. People who applied for ballots but didn’t receive them can still vote in-person on Election Day.