Charlie Smyth (right) joined Senator Dick Durbin at a fundraiser in Champaign-Urbana this past Tuesday. (photo by Brendan McGinty)
Election laws around the nation are a hot news topic in this presidential election year, and, in Illinois, ground zero for interpretation of election law is the County Clerk’s office. In this November’s election, Urbana alderman Charlie Smyth is opposing Gordy Hulten, who was appointed to the office in December 2010, when Mark Shelden resigned to become U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson’s chief of staff. The election is for the final two years of Shelden’s term.
Smyth, a Democrat, faces an uphill battle in the election, as Republicans have held the Clerk’s office in Champaign County since 1942. To put that in perspective, “The last County Clerk that was a Democrat was Elmer Hogarth,” Smyth related. “His son is a retired banker here in the community: Phil Hogarth.”
The election history on the County Clerk’s website goes back to 1968. Here are the results from the last 11 elections for Champaign County Clerk:
2010: Mark Shelden ran unopposed
2006: Mark Shelden (60%) defeated Michael Richards (40%)
2002: Mark Shelden (58%) defeated Paul Faraci (42%)
1998: Mark Shelden (53%) defeated Naomi Jakobsson (47%)
1994: Dennis Bing (65%) defeated Robert Naiman (35%)
1990: Dennis Bing ran unopposed
1986: Dennis Bing (66%) defeated Thomas Betz (34%)
1982: Dennis Bing ran unopposed
1978: Dennis Bing (70%) defeated Jack Schneider (30%)
1974: Dennis Bing (56%) defeated William Condon (44%)
1970: Dennis Bing (57%) defeated William Condon (43%)
As you can see, the Clerk’s election is normally held in non-Presidential election years, but Smyth has an opportunity due to the timing of Shelden’s resignation. “We have a chance to vote for County Clerk in a presidential election year when turnout is higher,” Smyth said. “Again, when turnout is high, when more people vote in Champaign County, it tends to be Democrats. Most of that is the student vote; [it] has a big impact.”
And getting out the vote is a key pillar of Smyth’s campaign. He noted, “Voting is just so important to our democracy. It’s the starting point, really: the idea of one person, one vote. And what I’m seeing is that we’ve got a national problem right now, which is that the Republican Party is trying everything it can to limit people’s ability to vote.” Smyth was referring to the prevalence of Voter ID laws in 32 states, the stated purpose of which are to prevent voter impersonation fraud:
There are 10 or 12 occasions of fraud out of millions and millions of votes cast. If any fraud is being committed, it’s really hard to do it in person; absentee ballot is the way to do it, and that can be abused by anybody. It’s probably more likely to be abused by political parties than it is by individuals. That’s a different kind of fraud than what they’re trying to justify with ID laws and stuff like that. Once people establish their ability to vote, they’ve proved their residency and gotten their signature on a card. There just shouldn’t be these hoops to jump through to vote. We should make it as easy as possible to vote. Nationally, we have this trend. Every one of these laws have been passed since Obama was elected, and it’s all been done by Republican legislatures.
NO FUNNY STUFF
Smyth’s website promises “No Games. No Funny Stuff. Let’s Get People Voting.” When asked to explain, Smyth pointed out past occasions of impropriety on the part of the County Clerk’s office:
[There are] stories, well-known stories, of [longtime former Clerk] Denny Bing disenfranchising students. Stuff like not bringing enough machines in [to U of I campus precincts] so that long lines form. That’s great, you have one machine, and a long line, people are going to walk away.
Another case that Smyth points out was more recent:
In 2008, Mark Shelden played a pretty mean game on students on campus: at campus polls, he required everybody voting to show an ID. And that is simply not required. The only people who are required to show an ID are those who registered Motor Votor, because they’ve not gone through the normal presentation of credentials and proof of residency that you do when you do the traditional voter registrar form. So, you have a deputy registrar who has a nice form that becomes part of the permanent record, and when you do that you have to go one by one for the person, and it becomes part of the permanent record.
Now with Motor Voter forms, which were slowly accepted as a way to register people for county-wide — originally they were only allowed to vote for federal candidates, and eventually there was some pushback, and (it was decided) you could use it to register for all levels. So, for Motor Voter, you have to show ID and proof of residency the first time you vote the first time after Motor Voter. But on campus, everyone was required, including people who had voted for years before and just happened to be voting at a campus precinct. So, people had to turn away and get ID. And of course, when people get turned away, they get frustrated and don’t come back and necessarily vote. Now, to the credit of the Democrats, they got very good turnout in 2008 on campus. It was a very special case, there was a lot of student registration of voters, and it’s a challenge to try to repeat that again. I think it’s important that we do.
Smyth also sees voter registration as a key component of the Clerk’s duties:
To me, the most important thing is to run the office in a fair manner so that people trust it, a lot of integrity. That’s part one. And part two is making sure that everybody who’s eligible to vote can vote. I think one of the things we have to start thinking about is being proactive in getting people registered to vote. I have no problem with getting people registered to vote; I think it’s important. I think some people are afraid of that because they think they’re going to lose control, lose power. I think the Republicans are threatened by getting lots of people out to vote. I won’t stretch the law to disenfranchise voters, which I think is what’s been done in very small, subtle ways in the past.
When asked for any other examples, Smyth said, “I think one year the Republican judges on campus were instructed to go challenge everybody they thought was a Democrat. That’s partisanship that we just don’t need.”
Smyth also pointed out the Circuit Clerk Republican Primary from earlier this year as an example of “the latest game that was played by the Republicans.” For those unfamiliar, Rick Winkel filed nomination papers before the primary, but withdrew after the deadline to be removed from the primary ballot. Despite this, Winkel still defeated Stephanie Holderfield in the primary. In a special meeting of the Champaign County Republican party, Winkel was replaced on the general election ballot by Katie Malone Blakeman. Smyth explained:
The State Board of Elections said that one thing that could have or should have been done — what I would have done if I had been County Clerk — is to put up a notice at the polling site saying that Rick Winkel had withdrawn. And the State Board of Elections says that votes for Winkel should not have counted. The current Clerk got an opinion from the State’s Attorney that, no, they should be counted, and they counted Winkel as the winner.
Rumor has it that Republicans were being encouraged to vote for Winkel, knowing that he wasn’t going to run, but if he won, the party would be able to appoint a person to run. So, that’s exactly what they did: they appointed somebody to run for the office. Frankly, she should have run in the first place. You disenfranchise voters; if you want the position, run in the primary, OK? None of this end-run stuff of the Republican Party picking their candidate.
They did the same thing with Tim Johnson’s position. Tim Johnson left his name in the hat knowing full well, it looks like, that he was not going to run for re-election. If he was afraid to run against Gill, he should have stepped back and let the voters pick his successor to run. As a Democrat, if the Democratic Party would have done that, I would have been screaming bloody murder. And I think a number of Republicans are very upset that they did not get to pick the candidate.
A BIG DATA JOB
Smyth retired from the U of I this past February, where his last job title was Manager of System Services (Crop Sciences). He sees his background as ideal for the Clerk position:
“First, there’s the technical aspects of the office itself. I have a 30-year IT background; my training is as a bio-statistician. So I think I’ve got the credentials for what I look at as a big data job. It’s a data management job, and it has a huge user component, so the County Clerk’s office really has to be user-friendly. User services are a big piece of that, so that’s got to be kept with public service in mind. You want someone who works efficiently; you want it easy for people to get to the stuff that they need. A lot of it’s automation, getting the stuff on the web, making sure the forms are user-friendly — some of them aren’t.
His website states that he “[w]ill use expertise as an Information Technology professional to reduce overhead, duplication, unnecessary printing, and cut waste to save taxpayer funds.” When asked to state some specific ideas for saving resources, Smyth stated,
The county, to its credit, has been in the process of trying to streamline, [but] it’s always good to bring in somebody new. I’ve got a lot of technology background; I’ve been doing it for 30-plus years. So, you look at computer systems for example: does each office have its own computer system, or do they share resources? Do they share the back-end stuff? Do they talk to each other?
Smyth has served on Urbana City Council for a total of 12 years over two separate occasions. “My first term was from 1989 to ’93. And then I had two young children in school, and I was very involved in their soccer and other things… And when they finished up [school] … I ran again” in 2005.
Smyth represents Ward 1, which encompasses much of west Urbana. “This is a very fun area of the community to represent,” he said. “Because personally, my own views are very similar to the majority of the voters here. I would say that I’m a good representative of the cross-section here, because I’ve got a good number of people to my left, and I’ve got people to my right. So, I think I’m a good middle ground person.”
Looking back, Smyth related:
The thing I’m most proud of during my last seven years on the City Council is developing the goals for the City that we’ve been out there working at. When Laurel Prussing was elected, she and I were talking one evening, maybe the evening of her primary party, I’m not sure, and we talked about how we needed to set city-wide goals, council/mayor goals. And we did those in the fall of 2005. We had a set of 13 that grew to 14, and we just got through them.
I only wish I knew in 1989 what I know now about local government: how to move things forward, how to be efficient, how to work with council members. I’m not the best at it, and others are more eloquent in their words; they’re better writers, but I’m a person who likes to get things done. I try to push things along, and I try to incorporate other people’s ideas, so I look at myself as a melting pot, trying to pull all those ideas together into something that works, so we can all move forward.