SPRINGFIELD — A conservative group with ties to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and his allies is accusing the Illinois attorney general’s office and local officials in Rock Island County of trying to interfere with its vote-by-mail campaign.
The Illinois Opportunity Project, founded by radio host Dan Proft and Pat Hughes, has sent out about 150,000 applications for mail-in ballots to voters in a half-dozen counties, including Rock Island, that are home to some of Tuesday’s most hotly contested races for the Illinois General Assembly.
Third-party organizations are allowed to collect applications for mail-in ballots under state law. Groups must turn in the applications to local election authorities, who then mail ballots to voters.
Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office began asking questions about the Illinois Opportunity Project’s program last week after receiving complaints that “raised specific concerns about that organization’s vote-by-mail efforts,” spokeswoman Maura Possley said in written statement.
“Specifically, we have received complaints regarding voter confusion,” Possley said. “Because the Illinois Opportunity Project’s mailings do not identify that organization and, instead, are sent from ‘(Name of County) County Vote By Mail Center,’ they have led to voter confusion regarding whether they are official documents from the counties.”
There also were concerns that applications weren’t being picked up and delivered to local election authorities in a timely manner, according to the attorney general’s office.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Lorreta Lynch on Thursday requesting that the Department of Justice look into the situation "in light of the troubling nature of this incident."
"Voting is, as the Supreme Court has said, a right 'preservative of all rights,' " Durbin wrote. "Efforts to suppress this fundamental right should be promptly investigated, remedied, and, if appropriate, prosecuted."
Hughes, meanwhile, accused the Illinois attorney general's office of trying to suppress voters by interfering with his group's vote-by-mail effort.
The Illinois Opportunity Project's applications went out to voters Oct. 11 and 12, he said, and they were temporarily held up at the post office once returned because the group had to pay for prepaid postage.
When the group was notified Oct. 21, a representative went in the next day and paid the outstanding balance, he said, adding that it took a few days for the check to clear so that the mail could be released.
“The whole purpose of our program is to get the people that we’re targeting to vote,” Hughes said. “That’s the whole purpose of it, so of course we’re going to pick up those applications.”
He said the group uses “proprietary metrics” to determine who should receive its vote-by-mail solicitations but declined to give additional details.
After receiving complaints, the attorney general’s office contacted the Illinois Opportunity Project last week seeking more information about where the applications were being distributed, the dates they were sent out, the post offices boxes to which they were supposed to be returned, the voters who received them, and other details.
Hughes said the attorney general’s office has refused to identify any laws it believes his group has violated.
“This is harassment by the Democrat attorney general, the Democratic county clerk, the Democrat state’s attorney against who they perceive to be a political opponent to upset and distract a vote-by-mail program that they believe is targeting voters that don’t benefit them,” Hughes said.
Democratic Rock Island County Clerk Karen Kinney said it’s no such thing.
“This has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican,” Kinney said. “I am trying to get my hands on the absentee applications for all voters, Democrat and Republican, and I would appreciate it if they would turn those over to me.”
Hughes said that his group has been checking its post office box daily and delivering any applications it receives to Kinney’s office, but Kinney said the group hasn’t delivered any since last week, when about 1,500 were dropped off. Thursday was the deadline for local election authorities to receive applications.
Election officials in Macon and Jackson counties and the city of Bloomington said they haven’t had any issues similar to what’s happening in Rock Island County.
Cathie Haab, assistant executive director of the Bloomington Election Commission, said the commission has only received routine inquiries from voters about the status of mail-in ballot applications.
“We haven’t had any mass complaints,” Jackson County Clerk Larry Reinhardt said, adding that his office has had to reissue a few ballots that were lost in the mail.
Macon County Clerk Stephen Bean said the only issue his office has experienced is voter frustration with the delays involved when outside groups, including the Democratic and Republican parties, have applications sent to out-of-county addresses rather than directly to the clerk’s office.