2012 election candidate questionnaire: Charlie Smyth, Champaign County clerk
Charles A. "Charlie" Smyth
805 S. Coler, Urbana, IL 61801
DOB: March 8, 1956
Education: University of Kansas, B.A., Biology (with Honors) and Mathematics, 1978. University of Kansas, M.A., Biology, 1981. University of Illinois, M.S., Statistics, 1982. Other: Urbana City Council member 1989-1993 and 2005 to present, with current term ending May 2013; 33-year resident; served on Urbana Free Library board 2000 to 2007; worked as manager of system services for the UI Department of Agronomy from 1982-1987 and the UI Department of Crop Sciences from 1990 to 2012; former Urbana Park District volunteer soccer coach and USSF referee; grew up bilingual (Spanish); married and father of two grown sons; avid bicyclist and organic gardener.
1. What qualities do you possess that qualifies you to be the county clerk?
As a 30-year statistician, computer and IT professional, I bring technical and management expertise to the office. I think the technical skills I have mesh well with the modernization of our voting and other database-driven systems. As a manager, I've encouraged my staff to take ownership of projects, develop existing or acquire new skills, and to keep the users' needs a priority. Accuracy and user friendly service are paramount goals. From my 11 years on the Urbana City Council, I bring a demonstrated ability to work with other officials as well as to develop a vision with accompanying goals and then work to accomplish those goals. In this spirit, I'd like to see Champaign County have the highest voter registration and turnout per capita in the state. Achieving such distinction would indicate that people are invested in our community and sends a message about the quality of our workforce.
2. What do you believe is the most important attribute of a county clerk: familiarity with election law, working with other county officials, the ability to oversee a large staff, or something else?
These attributes and others described in question 1 are all important but above all, a level of professionalism that encompasses integrity, independence and service. There has been a perception that the county clerk's office has been partisan and used to repress voting, particularly among students. This is a professional office doing county business, staffed by professionals and should be managed by an elected professional. As a professional, I will run the office in an even-handed and impartial manner. I believe strongly that more effort needs to be taken to increase participation in our democratic process so I would take an activist approach to educating about the importance as well as the mechanics of registration and voting.
3. Are there changes the clerk's office requires that can be implemented locally?
The county clerk's office must provide accurate and easily accessible records, be they business, real estate, demographic or personal. At the same time, user privacy and security concerns need to be maintained and costs kept under control. Without having an inside view of the day to day workings of the clerk's office, the only immediate concern I have relates to disparate computer systems in use across levels of county government. The county has a 40-year-old computer system for financial records, the county's judicial system uses yet another while aspects of the county clerk's office are in a Unix-based system. As one who believes in coordination and collaboration across an agency (and beyond), any new investment in technology should address this as an opportunity to share at least some aspects of the backend computer infrastructure and systems. This should lower support costs and avoid duplicate work so as to free up staff for other needed services. One has to keep looking for affordable newer technologies to improve and expand services and as well as challenge employees to look for better ways to do their jobs.
4. Are there changes in Illinois law that you would push for as the elected county clerk?
Every election there seems to be a scramble for election judges. The system as established doesn't allow for "part time" judges that could step in and provide relief for those unable to meet the long hours required or allow for job sharing/half-time judges. I think the Legislature should allow for such by directing the state election board to develop, probably on a trial or test basis to start, mechanisms that provide for appropriate training, ballot security and related safeguards. Such flexibility would make it easier to recruit judges.
5. What do you think the public's perception of the county clerk's office is? If there are problems, what do you want to do to improve that perception?
In addition to my comments in question 2 which pertain to past county clerks, the handling of the Holderfield-Winkel circuit clerk issues raise similar questions about independence and integrity. If I had been someone's past campaign manager, I would recuse myself from decisions related to any candidacy conflicts involving that person and his or her opponents. In addition, I would have followed the State Board of Elections' advice and posted notices in polling locations stating that Mr. Winkel had withdrawn as a candidate. The solution, as stated earlier, is to elect a professional with a track record for integrity and independence.
The county clerk's office is very user service-oriented and highly visible. Good morale and job satisfaction influence how employees interact with the public they serve and are key to providing a high level of service. Hence, employees should be participating in the organization, be respected for the work they do, and encouraged to show initiative and creativity on the job. The county clerk should be the contact person for and involved with the community on soliciting, improving, and developing services for the office.
6. Is there a need to make it easier to vote? If you believe there is, are there things the county clerk can do, or is it mostly a legislative responsibility?
I think there is a combination of both local and statewide responsibility — voter registration and voting needs to be more streamlined and made more efficient. First, in terms of convenience at the local level, expanded locations for early voting are appropriate. However, one must keep in mind that two-thirds of the population lives in the greater Urbana-Champaign-Savoy area so the locations chosen should reflect this population distribution. Though there is cost involved, one must look at the deployment of machines in locations so that as many locations as possible can handle as many voters from different parts of the community as possible. Second, for first-time voters, it's very important that clear, concise directions and examples be provided for motor-voter identification issues and just simply for the mechanics of how to vote. I have had several new voters ask me why there were no instructions at the polls on primary, party-based, voting when they went to vote earlier this year. For example, DuPage County has a series of short videos on seven different voter-related topics that would make appropriate YouTube-style videos hanging from the county clerk website.
We need to work with our legislators to build on existing computerized systems at the State Board of Elections and the Secretary of State's office to allow for smoother voter registration and in particular, change of address. Because we are a much more transient population, easier methods than the extended paper-based systems currently in use need to be investigated to eliminate the inefficient redundancies of having every county re-register people as if they had never registered before when they are simply moving from one county to another let alone within the county.
I recognize that computer security and internet issues are already of concern but the demand for all things online keeps growing. The challenge will be to meet expectations and deliver convenience via various web applications including smart devices. I'm already concerned for the physical and network security of laptops being used in the upcoming election and trust that there are appropriate encryption methods in use for safe data transfers. These issues need to be addressed for some of the expansion of statewide services that are likely in the next few years. Technological advances in personal identity protection may help in solving some of the thornier issues of proving one's identity when working with and developing applications that will make voter registration, voting, and access to personal records more convenient while still secure.
7. Do you think fundamental change are required in the county clerk's annual budget?
Having reviewed the past year's budget, I am concerned that the current clerk has taken advantage of printing and mailing in an effort to publicize his name — with so much on the web, can this be trimmed? A staff member from the clerk's office told me that there were 20,000 voter registration forms dropped off at dorms and apartment complexes around campus. Are the blanks going to be collected up and reused in the years to come (and at what cost)? Similarly, my wife received two back to back solicitations, a few weeks apart, to become an election judge in addition to one left at our door, again all with the incumbent's name prominently displayed. Finally, there's the issue of a printed voter's guide from the past primary that looks like an election piece supporting the incumbent. The cynic in me says, "Only in Illinois."