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Lawsuit filed to protect right to choose who administers elections

Lake County Board Chairman AarLawlor left Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim talk press conference Tuesday July State Illinois Lake

Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor, left, and Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim talk at a press conference Tuesday, July State of Illinois and Lake County's chief judge over who will run elections. | Frank bderholden~Sun-Times Media

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How elections work now:

Lake County Clerk Williard Helander, Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim and Circuit Court Clerk Keith Brin make up the electoral board. They accept nominating papers for circuit court clerk, coroner, county Clerk, recorder of deeds, regional superintendent of schools, sheriff, state’s attorney and treasurer, precinct committeemen, county board districts, and North Shore Sanitary District.

The Lake County Electoral Board also hears objections to petitions for state senators, Representatives and judicial offices of the district falls entirely in Lake County.

Municipal, township and education officers of electoral boards conduct their own hearings. The Lake County Electoral Board hears objections for libraries, park districts, and fire protection districts.

The clerk’s office also tracks birth records, death records, civil unions, marriage licenses, assumed business names, record of notaries, statement of economic interests, campaign disclosures, public filings, tax and real estate services as well as recording the Lake County Board proceedings.

Updated: September 1, 2013 6:29AM

The elections system in Lake County is being turned on its head after Governor Patrick Quinn signed into law a provision that changes the running of elections from the county clerk’s office to one of an elections commission.

On Tuesday, July 30, Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor and Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim announced they have filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction from the court to prevent the new law from taking effect, at the same time acknowledging that they don’t know who was behind the language that singles out Lake County from all other 101 counties in the state.

“This law treats Lake County different than any other county in the state,” said Lawlor, “It’s undeniable special legislation prohibited by the state constitution.” He is referring to Public Act 98-0115, where a small amendment saddled the county with creating a bipartisan elections commission made up of five members appointed by the chief of the Lake County Circuit, Fred Foreman, within 30 days. Foreman is also named in the suit along with the state board of elections because they provide oversight of elections.

One provision calls for an elections commission in any county of over 700,000 in the 2010 federal census, borders another state and borders no more than two other Illinois counties. Lake County is and always will be the only county in the state that fits that description, said Nerheim.

“Obviously in the wording Lake County was targeted,” he said. The Illinois Constitution (Article IV, Section 13) prohibits the general assembly from passing “special legislation” when general laws can be made applicable.

The civil suit seeks relief through a preliminary injunction. Nerheim said he expects the Lake County Circuit Court judge hearing the case on Thursday will recuse himself because of a conflict of interest and an outside judge will either come in to hear the case or the case will be moved out of the county.

“This will take some time,” said Nerheim. “We’ll see what the courts do and will respond from there,” he said.

“It is our contention that there is no rational basis to treat Lake County differently than other counties, where elections commissions are only established based on the will of the county voters, either through a direct voter referendum or indirectly through a county board ordinance,” he said.

Lawlor said the secrecy of the amendment bothers him. “It was snuck in in the last days of the special session. Why was this done with a total lack of transparency. No one in Springfield will answer that question,” he said.

Lawlor said it will cost Lake County taxpayers $700,000 a year in addition to the expenses for a new layer of government. “What Springfield did was just plain wrong,” he said.

When word of the amendment got out, the county board approved a resolution opposing the legislation and the board lobbied local lawmakers to prevent it from moving forward. One state senator, Terry Link D-Waukegan, out of five voted for it, and four of nine state representatives supported it. From there the county board urged Quinn to veto the measure, but he signed it into law last weekend.

“This lawsuit is our last resort to overturn this law. It’s a decision we take very seriously,” Lawlor said.

Other election commissions exist in the state, either through county board ordinances or referendum. In those cases, the county board chairman names the members of the electoral board, whereas the Lake County law provides for the chief judge to name the bipartisan board with two Democrats, two Republicans and another member from either party or an independent.

Link said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but he did say he voted for it because ever since Grace Mary Stern ran the office (which he worked in when he was young), people always figured the electoral board was only out to help their party because they were all elected officials.

In the new law, an elected official has to be out of office for at least two years before they can be appointed to the board. “I am not pointing fingers,” he said of Helander and other electoral board members. “There’s always a perception that politics is involved. This is what people want. They will feel better abut the system,” he said.

As to creating a new layer of government, he scoffs at the idea. “The elections department is under the county clerk, they would simply switch over to the board and work for the board and not just an individual,” he said.

“If someone challenges a petition, instead of going before elected officials, they go in front of the commission,” he said. The county clerk’s office would still have tax extensions, marriages and other venues they are still in charge of, he said.

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