OCT 19, 2023
Committee reviews election security in Illinois as 2024 nears
From left to right, Chicago Board of Elections spokesperson Max Bever, State Board of Elections spokesperson Matt Dietrich, and State Board of Elections Deputy Director of Elections Operations Brian Pryor speak to the House Ethics and Elections Committee on Wednesday. [Blue Room Stream]
The 2024 election is a little more than one year away while early voting for the March primary election begins in less than four months. Lawmakers on the House Ethics and Elections Committee held a hearing Wednesday to hear what Illinois’ election authorities do to keep the democratic process safe.
Illinois has a decentralized election system, unlike many states where the secretary of state oversees voting. In Illinois, elections are run by local county clerks and the State Board of Elections oversees the implementation of election laws.
As the nation embarks on the first presidential election since 2020 when far-right politicians cast doubt on the integrity of American elections, Illinois’ election officials, including Republican county clerks, explained what they’re doing to keep voting safe.
“Election security is a nonpartisan effort and it’s one that’s never complete,” committee chair Rep. Maurice West (D-Rockford) said. “We all — Democrats, Republicans and independents — have a responsibility to stay vigilant against evolving threats to our electoral process.”
Leaders from the State Board of Elections (SBE) and Chicago Board of Elections explained how their processes are designed to verify results are accurate and ensure people are safe at polling locations. In Chicago, board spokesperson Max Bever told the committee that the board hires off-duty and retired police officers to respond to polling places.
The officers are sent to polling places “to help with any security concerns or issues so ultimately we’re not having 911 calls where they’re not necessary heading to police on election day,” Bever said.
Bever said these officers, officially called election investigators, often are there to talk through concerns with unhappy voters or a poll worker who feels threatened, though police are called if there’s an emergency or a crime.
Cybersecurity is also a concern. In July 2016, SBE was one of several election authorities in the U.S. to be compromised by hackers with ties to the Russian government. Over a three-week period, hackers accessed parts of voter data for 76,000 Illinois voters, though no issues of identity theft from the hack were ever reported and hackers only viewed parts of voters’ information and not results.
Election results in Illinois are not processed through an internet connection. Since the hack, SBE has revamped their cybersecurity processes and helped other election authorities bolster their protections against bad actors.
“Security has now become, and I think not just for us but all the election authorities, has become just part of the job,” SBE spokesperson Matt Dietrich said. “We’re aware that it’s become a never-ending concern and you have to be aware all the time that there are international actors, domestic actors who are trying to break into our systems not so much to influence our elections but just to wreak havoc and to diminish public confidence in the election system overall.”
Though must doubts in recent years about election integrity have been expressed by Republicans, Fulton County Clerk Patrick O’Brian, who is a Republican, said he encourages the public to come see how elections are run.
“We don’t like the misinformation any more than [the public does],” O’Brian said. “We have an open-door policy and I want to reaffirm that.”
O’Brian and Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman also made a list of legislative requests to lawmakers. They include tying pay for election judges to the minimum wage, giving election authorities more ability to use local police at polling places, providing election judges with better identification, making any charges for threatening an election judge as severe as threating a courtroom judge, and increasing funding for counties to provide more election security.
O’Brian also suggested counties have plans to keep ballots and results safe in the event of severe weather. During the April 4 municipal election, a tornado passed over the Lewistown courthouse where Fulton County counts results and struck a polling place.
“Through following our emergency protocols, not one ballot was lost and not one election judge was critically injured,” O’Brian said, saying it demonstrated how well local election controls work. “This was a true test of the effectiveness and implementation of our emergency protocols.”
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