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Somebody's Watching: DuPage, IL Report and Oversight of Election Offices

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[Image courtesy of ourgeneration.org]

Last week's news brought several stories about a brewing controversy in Illinois' DuPage County, located in the Chicago suburbs. There, a consulting form retained by the County Board issued a report sharply critical of the Election Board after its review suggested that there had been insufficient controls on the board's contracting function.

According to the Naperville Sun:

Crowe Horwath partner Bert Nuehring told the board Tuesday morning that documentation confirming proper procurement rules were followed was lacking in all but one of the 13 contracts his firm examined as part of its assessment.

"Proper procurement, open process, ensures that you get the best prices," Nuehring said.

Bringing the commission's procurement policies in step with those of the county, as Crowe Horwath has suggested for other appointed advisory bodies it was hired to evaluate, is a matter of "enhancements and alignment," Nuehring said.

County Board members were particularly concerned about two instances in which contracts had expired and the commission issued purchase orders instead of renewing the accords. One of the contracts was for equipment maintenance, and the other was the renewal of a software license, worth more than $345,000.

...

Also raising board eyebrows was a four-year, $4.9 million printing contract given to DuPage-based Liberty Systems, which hired a printing company to do the work. Officials said the ballots produced by the subcontractor were those that caused problems in last month's primaries. The oversized ballots had to be hand-trimmed so the voting machines could process them.

For its part, the Election Board is standing firm, responding in a statement that it "is independent and bipartisan, designed to function 'shielded from the day-to-day political winds of the central county government' -- and noted that [it has] succeeded in conducting accurate, fair elections."

The details of specific contracts at issue in DuPage are still forthcoming, and the underlying concerns about lack of purchasing controls as yet unconfirmed - but the key point to focus on for now is the last part of the board's response; namely, that it needs to be shielded from political influence and suggesting that reports like this one somehow compromise its independence.

This question is likely to recur as more and more jurisdictions face fiscal constraints - and turn to their agencies, including election boards - to help control costs.

In this dispute, both sides are right to a certain extent: the election board is right to resist efforts to compromise its independence, while the County has a duty to its taxpayers to ensure that all of its agencies - including elections - are using resources efficiently and well.

The trick in DuPage - as it will be around the country - will be to find a balance. Election offices simply can't expect that their obligations to nonpartisanship will shield them from the same fiscal oversight that other agencies get; at the same time, local governments will need to be sensitive that the oversight they do conduct not cross the line into interfering with the impartiality that is mission-critical for any election office.

This is easier said than done, of course - but being aware of the conflict (which is recurring in other places around the nation) goes a long way toward ensuring that election offices are serving their citizens not just as voters but as taxpayers.

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