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Illinois Supreme Court rejects clerk’s request in tight state legislative race

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/22/2022 Rick Pearson, Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune
Election manager Stephanie Groenewold wheels a cart of mail-in ballots to a secure location inside the DuPage County clerk’s office on Nov. 9, 2022, in Wheaton. © Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS Election manager Stephanie Groenewold wheels a cart of mail-in ballots to a secure location inside the DuPage County clerk’s office on Nov. 9, 2022, in Wheaton.

The Illinois Supreme Court, in an unsigned order Monday, rejected a request by the DuPage County clerk to lift a local judge’s ruling directing the clerk on how she should verify the authenticity of late-arriving mailed-in ballots.

The ruling came as Tuesday marked the final day ballots sent on or before Election Day on Nov. 8 could be verified and counted — with a close race between GOP state Rep. Deanne Mazzochi and Democratic challenger Jenn Ladisch Douglass, both of Elmhurst, hanging in the balance.

As of Tuesday, unofficial vote totals showed Douglass had a 365 vote lead over Mazzochi in the district, which also includes a sliver of western Cook County, 21,960 to 21,595.

At issue in the case is how the late-arriving, mail-in ballots were being verified and counted in DuPage County.

Mazzochi, an attorney and an assistant House GOP leader, alleged DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek was improperly verifying the signatures on mail-in ballots by using vote-by-mail applications instead of the voter registration signature on file in the clerk’s office.

Mazzochi filed suit to challenge the signature-verifying method and last week DuPage County Circuit Judge James Orel sided with Mazzochi and ordered Kaczmarek to certify the validity of mail-in ballots using the voter registration signature on file in her office and prohibited the clerk’s office from using signatures of vote-by-mail applications to verify mailed-in ballot signatures.

“Use of the Vote by Mail ballot application to qualify signatures on the Vote by Mail ballot itself would be an obvious way to commit ballot fraud,” Orel said in his order.

Orel’s order also told Kaczmarek that if a voter’s signature on the mail-in ballot didn’t match the on-file voter registration signature, the ballot must be segregated, marked “rejected” and to follow procedures required to contact the voter to verify its authenticity.

Kaczmarek filed for an emergency supervisory order from the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn Orel’s ruling, contending the court could not interfere in the vote counting and that Mazzochi’s actions were premature since she would have an opportunity to contest the election once all ballots were counted.

Kaczmarek’s filing warned that Orel’s action “invites political agents of any political association to file unauthorized lawsuits in the midst of counting votes in ongoing elections hoping that an Illinois court will assume the role of an election official and will order the counting of votes in the manner they deem fit.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday means Orel’s order remains intact. Mazzochi has the ability to contest the election results.

In a court filing, Mazzochi said judicial intervention was necessary to “ensure that the Election Code will be followed and only lawful votes will be counted.”

Absent court involvement, she contended, the “clerk’s unlawful practices will go unchecked and the election results will be tabulated in violation of the law.”

Adam Johnson, Kaczmarek’s chief deputy, said Tuesday that the office was on track to finish counting mail-in ballots as scheduled, following the dictates of the court order.

“We’re proceeding with our duties to count the votes and certify the election results next week,” Johnson said.

Mazzochi attorney Michael Kozlowski said it has yet to be determined how Mazzochi will proceed once the results are certified.

“There’s a mandatory process,” he said. “The clerk was not following the process. All we want is the clerk to follow the process.”

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