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Election officials across Illinois are stepping up security amid fears of violence

BELVIDERE — Hidden among the maze of filing cabinets and desks in the nondescript offices of the Boone County Clerk and Recorder are five buttons that employees can push if they believe they are in danger.

The “panic” buttons – one behind a fake plant, the other in an easily accessible drawer – were installed ahead of the 2020 general election after County Clerk Julie Bliss saw the national rhetoric about election fraud heating up .

Since then, the situation has not improved.

Panic buttons and new security locks were preemptive in case one, several or even a mob of people broke into Bliss’ offices in Belvidere, where Boone County’s ballots are counted on Election Day. But the “general anger and tension” of the national political climate means the safeguards will remain, said Bliss, a Republican who has served as clerk since 2017 and is an official with the Illinois Association of County Clerks and Rectors.

Boone County Clerk Julie Bliss speaks at the clerk's office in Belvidere.

Across the country, protesters and extremists — many in the wake of former Republican President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen — have been harassing, threatening and intimidating election workers. This development was noticed by their colleagues in Illinois and, in some cases, experienced firsthand.

Election officials across Illinois are giving mixed answers about the security and precautions being taken during the Nov. 8 election and what, if any, harassment and intimidation they faced. Some say they haven’t felt the shivers from national threats. Still, many acknowledge that there has been a major shift in how the election is perceived by the public, and they know that Illinois is not immune.

Bliss said that in addition to calls from suspicious voters, she has received calls from prospective election judges worried about the job. In one case, someone who was going to be an election judge decided against it because he felt the security risk was too high.

“They were very concerned about the security at the judicial polling station, (asking) how am I going to make sure they are safe? I can’t promise that,” Bliss said from her office in Boone County, where Trump was leading President Joe Biden by 13 percent in 2020. “I can’t say that someone isn’t going to walk in the door and do something, any more than our schools can say that to me as a parent.”

In Murphysboro, in far southern Illinois, Jackson County Clerk and Recorder Frank L. Bride, a Democrat, said he was insulted and made aggressive comments. According to him, some residents even made disparaging comments about his family members.

In a district where Biden led Trump by just 1%, Byrd said the local GOP organized document requests from his office that he said were time-consuming and that local GOP leaders didn’t think to mail out ballots. , putting pressure on him to pull names from the voter lists.

“It’s outrageous,” he said. “You can’t appease them.”

Jason Swanda, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, said the records requests to Byrd’s office are legitimate and that the party’s voter registration efforts are aimed at making the election fair.

“Voter integrity is a major issue throughout Illinois,” Svanda said.

Still, Byrd said a pastor friend recently sat Byrd down and told him to be careful, adding that he’s noticed some getting upset after he installed ballot boxes at the police station and courthouse that are monitored by video cameras.

“I will make sure that people are available until their last breath,” said Byrd, who added that safe, democratic elections will be increasingly threatened if election deniers are allowed to flourish.

“I think they’re getting tougher and tougher,” he said. “The 2024 elections will be very difficult. … It will be terribly rude.”

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a national nonpartisan nonprofit that works with election officials to build voter confidence, said election workers across the country have been subjected to “years of harassment, abuse and threats.”

“I don’t know a single election worker in the country, from the secretary of state to the volunteers, who doesn’t think their job has changed,” he said.

Campaign workers reported more than 1,000 incidents of harassment or hostility, according to an August report. US Department of Justice. Administrators in some places, including the Republican supervisor in Arizona’s Maricopa County, have even received death threats for dismissing false claims of election fraud, Becker said.

“This is a completely new thing. It’s worse than ever,” he said. “They are being attacked because they have done something incredibly well. They somehow managed to have the highest turnout we’ve ever had in American history in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Unlike other states in the country, Illinois’ election system is not centralized, a fact that local election officials point to as a reason that coordinated widespread vote fraud is less likely.

Responsibility for conducting elections in Illinois is divided between 108 subjects, mostly county clerks like Bliss and Byrd. These officials register voters, train election judges, select polling stations, ensure ballots are printed correctly, manage Election Day, and oversee local vote counting.

At the state level, the Illinois State Board of Elections oversees elections, and the board also provides training for election judges in smaller counties. Because of the controversy caused by false claims of election fraud, that training included a greater emphasis on de-escalation and handling aggressive observers, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the state board.

“It would be almost impossible not to be aware of the potential for problems here,” Dietrich said.

Some election observers, who monitor elections without being involved in operations, showed up because they mistakenly believed the 2020 election results were determined by rampant voter fraud, Dietrich said. He noted that Illinois is not a prime target of election deniers, but said anecdotes from the state’s June primary detailed that some observers were more aggressive than in the past.

But while Illinois election officials have said there are no known specific security threats related to this election, some administrators have increased security throughout the election process. Others are preparing for more serious threats in the upcoming elections.

DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said her office received angry, profanity-laced voicemails claiming the 2020 election had been stolen. Some messages over the past few years have even threatened violence, she added.

“The threats are real and they exist,” said Kaczmarek, who in 2018 became the first Democrat elected to office in the country in Dupazh at the age of 84. “We don’t know when anyone listening to this rhetoric can act.”

In written testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this summer, Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammans asked for more federal funding for security measures like metal detectors.

“I don’t like having metal detectors, but I think it’s irresponsible of me to ignore the sensitivity and ignore the culture and the environment that we’re in right now and something happened to one of my employees because I’m not ‘not proactive,'” Ammons said in Tribune interview.

This election season, however, he said he has faced difficulty retaining election judges, many of whom are older. He is not the only one who has this concern.

In suburban Will County, election judges have resigned over security concerns, said County Clerk Lauren Staley Ferry, a Democrat.

“Our judges are worried. We’re watching what’s going on around the country, and it’s making our judges nervous,” said Staley Ferry, who asked Will County police chiefs to add extra patrols on Election Day. “We just want to do everything we can to make them feel safe.”

In Springfield, Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray, a Republican, said that while he hasn’t seen a major shift in hostility toward him or the office, he has noticed that election judges are spending more time on security during training.

“We can tell it’s at the forefront of the minds of the election judges,” he said.

Other clerks and election officials, including those in Chicago and suburban Cook County, said they had not experienced an influx of security concerns.

“We have been fortunate here at the Chicago Board of Elections, compared to many of our friends at various election agencies, in that we have not received the number of threats, emails or calls that many other election agencies receive. state or nationwide,” said Max Bever, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

Still, police are still beefing up voter protection in response to the nationwide concern, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said Friday. Police will check each of Chicago’s more than 900 polling places on Election Day and provide security at voting equipment storage areas and early voting locations, Brown said.

“Everything has changed since 2020,” he said. “We are closely following what is happening in the country.”

Boone County will have a poster at each polling place describing the security measures the county has in place, Bliss said. She added that her main task is not at the polling stations, but in the office during the counting of votes after the polling stations close.

Because an attack on this part of the process could affect the results of the constituency, her office will be guarded by off-duty police during this time, as was the case during the 2020 general election. She said other clerks were considering similar measures at the August conference of the Illinois Clerks and Rectors Association.

But some Boone County election judges see the situation as motivation to continue campaigning. For Linda Castro-Sebena, a Boone County judge since 2014, the “fraught” political climate has only fueled her passion for helping ensure fair elections.

“Here in Boone County, because we’re a small county, I don’t think there’s been a major change as far as, you know, our safety or anything. I never felt scared or scared or anything,” she said.

Despite the precautions Bliss takes, any concerns she and her husband have about her personal safety take second place to work.

“This is important. And when something is so important, you are ready to risk whatever you have to,” said Bliss.

Failure to vote could affect future elections, Becker said. Many campaign workers, exhausted and overworked, have left the field, and professionals with decades of experience may ultimately be replaced by people “who think their job is to put a thumb on the scale,” he said. He is convinced that the integrity of the election results is now safe, but believes that continued claims of fraud could spark more violence, even a flurry of “little January 6s.”

“Tens of millions of Americans have been led to believe that the only safe elections are the ones where their candidate wins,” Becker said. “It’s an unsustainable idea in a democracy.”

Kinsey Crowley is a freelance reporter.



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