SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — With less than two weeks until Illinois' high-stakes elections, an attorney general opinion has some officials rethinking vote-counting procedures in ways that they say could cause big delays in announcing results.
Elections officials across the state Thursday were weighing a recent ruling from Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who wrote that state law prohibits vote-counting before the 7 p.m. close of polls Nov. 4, including simple tabulating to facilitate prompt reporting of results later. Depending on how strictly the ruling is interpreted, it could be the wee hours of Nov. 5 before results are reported, including in the up-for-grabs race between Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.
Separately Thursday, in Rock Island County, Republicans filed a lawsuit against the Democratic county clerk alleging that mail-in votes are being opened early and that poll-watchers are prohibited from observing early voting.
Madigan, a Democrat, issued an opinion last week in response to some "procedural issues" about vote tabulation, spokeswoman Natalie Bauer said. The opinion says state law is clear that no vote-counting should start until 7 p.m. That includes running mail-in and early votes through equipment to prepare them for vote-recording, a process which, Madigan said, "clearly constitutes 'counting' as that term is ordinarily understood."
James Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, which oversees nearly 1.4 million voters, said prohibiting any activity until close of polls would mean the state's three-largest jurisdictions — Chicago, suburban Cook County, and suburban DuPage County — "would be delayed by multiple, multiple hours before reporting even one vote."
Allen said the board is seeking clarification from the attorney general on whether its traditional system will suffice. A machine processes and sorts the ballots and puts the results in an encrypted file that can only be ready when linked to accompanying software — something the office doesn't do until after polls close.
Using similar equipment, suburban Cook officials, with oversight of 1.4 million votes, plan to proceed with that very process, spokeswoman Courtney Greve said.
"It's completely open to the public," Greve said. " ... We always have observers as the ballots are being sorted, as envelopes are being opened, through the whole process. The key thing is no votes are tabulated or released until the polls close."
Bauer, of the attorney general's office, said she could not say how Madigan's lawyers would view the Cook approach.
In Rock Island County, the lawsuit against Clerk Karen Kinney was filed by GOP County Chairman William Bloom. He claims that Kinney's office has refused repeatedly to allow poll-watchers to observe the early voting process, that the staff has been inappropriately opening returned mail-in ballots and improperly putting them into tabulating machines.
"This critical election demands a fair, transparent, and by-the-rules process and the Rock Island clerk is not following the law," state GOP Party Chairman Tim Schneider said in a prepared statement.
Rock Island State's Attorney John McGehee said Kinney has consulted state elections officials, other clerks and experts and is "very comfortable with her policy and procedure."
"Everyone is just on pins and needles and on edge on everything and anything as it relates to this election," said McGehee, a Democrat. "We think it's very unusual."
A hearing on the lawsuit is set for Friday.
On the vote-counting issue, Kinney said Wednesday that she'll have the early ballots processed and ready for tabulating by 7 p.m.
"If we don't do it that way, we'll be here until Thursday or Friday," Kinney told Lee Enterprises Newspapers.
Contact John O'Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor
Lester reported from Chicago.