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Miller: State's media has fallen for spin on Board of Elections

Published: Monday, June 23, 2014 10:59 p.m. CDT

Almost 90 percent of the Yes for Independent Maps petition entries tossed as invalid by the Illinois State Board of Elections this month were for people who were either not registered to vote or weren’t registered to vote at the address shown on the petitions, official documents show.

The group is attempting to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot to reform the state’s indisputably hyper-partisan legislative redistricting process.

Yet, the state’s media, led by the Chicago Tribune editorial page, almost solely has focused on problems with signatures that don’t match up to voter registration cards. It’s either a gross misunderstanding of the situation or a deliberate deception.

The state board used a computer program to choose 25,000 petition entries at random out of the 500,000 or so entries turned in by the remap reform group. Board employees then examined the entries and struck 13,807 as invalid, for a failure rate of about 55 percent.

Of those, 7,535 entries (55 percent of the total rejected) were from people who were not registered to vote, according to Board of Elections Director Rupert Borgsmiller. Another 4,565 (33 percent) were signers who weren’t registered to vote at the address shown on the petition. The Yes for Independent Maps folks said they believe they can “rehabilitate” 4,130 of those, but that would be highly unusual. They need to restore somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 petition entries.

But despite the fact the remap reform group mainly lost petition challenges based on voter registration, the news media has stubbornly continued to focus on the relatively tiny fight over whether petition signatures matched up to signatures on voter registration cards.

The reality is that only 937 petition entries (7 percent of the total rejected) were tossed because the signatures didn’t match up to voter registration files. Another 721 (5 percent) were tossed because the board’s staff examiners couldn’t read the signatures and/or the address to figure out who the person actually was.

Yet, a Chicago Associated Press story published last week focused solely on “signatures,” as did a Tribune news story, as did two Tribune editorials, as did pretty much everyone else.

Obviously, if the problem is merely matching up signatures, that’s a subjective exercise and ripe for potential abuse. But the real problem with the remap petitions is unregistered or improperly registered voters. These things simply are not subjective.

“It’s because of a backroom process, an uneven, rushed process, that it had gotten to this point,” remap reformer Michael Kolenc told reporters last week. The “uneven” process has also been highlighted three times by the Tribune editorial board and it’s yet another grotesque distortion of the facts.

A June 5 Tribune editorial claimed “individual examiners’ invalidation rates ranged from 17 percent to 86 percent.” In one of two editorials last week, the Tribune finally admitted that they were talking about only two board staffers. “Should we take the word of the elections board examiners as gospel? One examiner disqualified 86 percent of the signatures he or she checked. Another examiner disqualified only 17 percent.”

So, what about those two examiners? Well, if you look at the actual data you’ll see that the two staffers in question examined only a handful of entries. A tiny sample of a 5 percent total sample can mathematically explain any wild individual variations.

The board assigned 38 staffers to the examination task. One staffer looked at only a single entry, so let’s toss him out. Of the rest, the number of signatures examined ranged from 1,714 down to 91, for an average of 676 examined and a median of 711.

The staffer who “disqualified only 17 percent” examined only 92 petition entries. The staffer who “disqualified 86 percent” looked at only 183 entries. The overwhelming majority of the examiners had pretty close to the final rate of 55 percent invalid.

Director Borgsmiller also noted that in the last two days of the examination process, his staff’s validation rate jumped to over 60 percent. Borgsmiller said that most of the petitions looked at during that period were from downstate. The Yes for Independent Maps group had several solid downstate volunteers, particularly in central Illinois.

The bottom line here is that this state’s media has fallen for spin that’s made the Board of Elections look like some evil entity. If that’s so, then why did the board certify Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s widely hated by insiders term limits constitutional amendment last week?

The most likely answer is almost always the simplest. Rauner obviously ran a tight ship. The remap folks apparently did not.

• Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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