Democratic ballots being recounted over 'undervotes'
URBANA — Every Democratic ballot cast in Champaign County in last week's primary is being recounted after irregularities were discovered in the results of several races.
Election authorities began a machine recount Tuesday afternoon. The errors occurred in the vote tabulations for 13th and 15th Congressional District committeeman; the 13th and 15th Congressional District committeewoman; and all precinct committeeman races. All were at the bottom of the ballot — but only the Democratic ballot.
In every case, the candidates were unopposed.
In one instance — the race for 15th Congressional District committeewoman — Jayne Mazzotti of Taylorville was credited with only 450 votes in Champaign County, while there were 7,325 "undervotes" (ballots where no vote was cast).
But a Tuesday morning handcount of Mazzotti's votes in the city of Champaign's Precinct 19 found she got 40 votes — despite being credited with none a week ago.
County Clerk Gordy Hulten acknowledged the mistake, which Democratic Party chairman Al Klein highlighted as a reason Hulten — who for now is unopposed in November's general election — should face competition.
In a message e-mailed to Democrats on Monday night, Klein said the party intends to slate a candidate for county clerk in May.
"I invited reaction and I expect it. I hope and expect that my invitation to everyone who has an interest will result in people giving me a call," Klein said Tuesday. "The replacement of Gordy Hulten as county clerk is job one."
But Klein admitted he didn't think the mistakes by the county clerk were deliberate.
"If I thought so, I would have said so," he said. "I don't like to characterize other people's motivations and I was careful not to do that."
Any candidate slated by Democratic precinct committeemen this spring would need to acquire approximately 280 signatures on candidate petitions. The deadline for submitting petitions is June 2, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Hulten won election to the position in 2012, defeating Urbana City Council member Charlie Smyth by more than 6,000 votes, or 54 percent to 46 percent. Republicans swept all four contested countywide races that year.
So far this year, Democrats have no candidates for any of the countywide races — sheriff, county treasurer or county clerk.
"There are people at varying levels of interest" for all the races, Klein said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Hulten, members of his staff, Klein, and five teams of election judges on Tuesday began recounting by machine every Democratic ballot cast in Champaign County in the primary — believed to be about 8,500 in all.
"We left time to take the rest of the week to do this," Hulten said, "but I'm hopeful that we can finish it by Wednesday afternoon."
"I met with Al Klein yesterday. He is onboard with this entire process," the Republican county clerk said Tuesday. "The State Board of Elections is onboard with this entire process. The state's attorney is onboard with this process."
Once all of the ballots are counted, Hulten said, "we'll update our unofficial results and post them."
He said he was "certain this is (limited to) Democratic state central commiteewoman, Democratic state central committeeman and Democratic precinct committeeman only. There is no impact on any races that were contested. And we verified that by spot-checking with Al Klein yesterday.
"I told him, 'Pick a precinct. Let's hand-count any race you want in this precinct so that you can have confidence that we've correctly isolated and diagnosed the problem.' We did that in his precinct and in a half-dozen others. We checked every race where somebody might have an interest, to make sure there would be no impact on any contested races."
Hulten said his office discovered the irregularities in the voting tabulations the day after the primary.
"We discovered it Wednesday and before we could figure out exactly what the issue was, we got calls from a handful of folks in the Democratic Party who were looking at their results and said, 'Wait, there's something that looks a little funky here.'"
In his e-mail to county Democrats, Klein said the errors "are the result of a synchronization failure between the layout of the paper ballots and their electronic counterparts in the (vote) tabulators. This caused the tabulators to associate some votes/undervotes with the wrong candidates/races in many precincts.
"This was not the fault of the voters, the election judges, the tabulating equipment or the state-certified software which aggregates and reports the votes. The invalid results are entirely due to the failure of Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten to properly synchronize the paper ballots with their tabulator ballot descriptions."
Hulten called the problem "a ballot design issue" that apparently resulted from an inch-tall section of white space on the Democratic ballot, just below the vote for a state appellate court position. Tabulators misread votes cast in all the races below that spot, often awarding no votes where ovals were filled in on ballots.
"We called our vendor (Election Supply and Systems in Omaha, Neb.). They recommended a procedure to us. We followed it. We tested everything. Everything tested fine because these are uncontested races," he said.
The problem arose because, Hulten admitted, a "less vigorous" test is applied to uncontested races.
"What we do when we test now is we run what is called a one to one deck, in which ballots are premarked in a specific pattern. What that means is that for uncontested races they're only run once. We could have run a max deck, for testing purposes. But that would have generated three times as many test ballots as we had on Election Day. For most elections we feel that that's overkill," he said.
But for the general election, Hulten said, "we're going to return to the max deck, just to make sure that everybody has absolute confidence in the system."