ROCK ISLAND – A conservative group accused of voter suppression has countered with its own claims that county Democrats and the state Attorney General's office are suppressing voter turnout and harassing its vote-by-mail program volunteers.
Pat Hughes, co-founder of the Illinois Opportunity Project, backed up those claims with a detailed timeline of events and copies of an email exchange between the state Attorney General's office and the group's Washington-based attorney. A group press release claims that there is a politically motivated effort underway to make it harder for the Illinois Opportunity Project to conduct its vote-by-mail program in Illinois.
"This is a clear case of powerful politicians, including and especially Attorney General Lisa Madigan, using their offices to harass their political opponents," Pat Hughes, co-founder of the conservative group, was quoted in the press release. "In doing so, they are denying numerous Illinoisans one of their most basic civil liberties: the right to vote."
Hughes is co-founder of Illinois Opportunity Project and president of Liberty Justice Center, which is affiliated with Liberty Principles PAC, chaired by conservative radio talk show host, Dan Proft.
More than $10 million has been given to Liberty Principles PAC by Chicago businessmen Richard Uhlein and Ken Griffin, as well as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
In recent weeks, the Illinois Opportunity Project discovered its mail is being delayed and held at post offices, according to the press release issued by the group.
"The Illinois Opportunity Project has received threatening phone calls and numerous demanding letters from the Attorney General’s office," the press release said. "For example, last week, the Attorney General’s office sent IOP a letter at 5:22 p.m. Thursday, October 27th with a lengthy and invasive list of demands, and ordered that IOP respond by noon the next day."
On Wednesday, Nov. 2, Huffington Post published allegations by Rock Island County Clerk Karen Kinney that the Illinois Opportunity Project sat on 1,500 completed vote-by-mail applications until she contacted law enforcement to retrieve them from the conservative group's post office box. In the same report, Steve Brown, a spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party, said that amounts to a voter suppression scheme.
“When you solicit absentee ballot applications and then sit on them, that’s about the only thing you can call it,” Brown said.
The same report also quoted Rock Island Democratic Party chair Doug House saying that a preliminary analysis of absentee ballots processed by Kinney on Oct. 27 showed the applications were mostly from Democrats and older voters.
"Why in the world would a dark money group that supports Bruce Rauner target high turnout Democrats and independents like this unless they wanted to suppress voters?" House was quoted. "We’ve closely examined the related facts and I am convinced that Bruce Rauner’s allies are trying to win one of the most competitive State House seats in Illinois through dirty tricks, deception and possibly illegal voter suppression tactics."
It is not clear how House came by that preliminary analysis. House did not respond to a Record request for comment.
The back and forth about alleged voter suppression has been going on for days locally and nationally with Clinton and Trump officials weighing in. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway denied an earlier comment from the Trump campaign that there are three major voter suppression efforts underway aimed at white liberals, young women and African Americans.
"That person misspoke and used a phrase that's not true," Conway said during a Bloomberg Politics interview. "I think it's Hillary Clinton who is trying to suppress our voters."
The Rock Island back-and-forth allegations are rooted in activities that began in about mid October. A timeline provided by the Illinois Opportunity Project begins with an Oct. 18 article published by Our Quad Cities Online about the Vote-by-Mail program authorized by the Democrat Party.
Two days later, the Illinois Opportunity Project received an inquiry from an attorney representing Cook County Clerk David Orr asking for details about the group's own Vote-by-Mail program, according to the timeline.
Over the next few days, the group reportedly was contacted by Ron Jewel, the U.S. Postal Inspector in Rock Island, also asking about the Illinois Opportunity Project's Vote-By-Mail program and stating he'd been pressured by the Illinois Attorney General’s office to look into that program. On Oct. 26, Illinois Opportunity Project's Washington counsel, Heidi Abegg, senior counsel with Webster, Chamberlain & Bean, contacted Jewel.
That same day, the timeline reported that an "Illinois Opportunity Project volunteer delivers 271 applications to John Brown at Rock Island County Clerk’s office and is interrogated by Brown."
That same morning, the Attorney General’s office responded to Abegg’s call to Jewel with a list that included the names of everyone participating in the Illinois Opportunity Project's Vote-by-Mail program, dates the program's correspondence were sent in each county and detailed information about future plans to send mailers in Illinois, including the dates and counties of future mailings. The list also included a requirement that an escort from the state accompany Illinois Opportunity Project officials when the pick up vote-by-mail correspondence at the post office and deliver them to county clerk offices.
"At no point has the Attorney General’s Office informed the Illinois Opportunity Project of any wrongdoing on their part," the timeline said.
Abegg responded the following day, providing requested information and also mentioned concerns expressed by the Attorney General's office about vote-by-mail applications sitting in post office boxes, specifically those in Rock Island.
"To assuage your concern, the Illinois Opportunity Project has voluntarily complied with requests I have received from your office and has provided specific information and assurance that the vote-by-mail applications are being delivered to the clerks' offices," Abegg said in her reply. "I have repeatedly explained that mail pieces where were sitting in several of the post office boxes were the result of: being held by the postal inspector; being held until return postal payment was made (Rock Island); or being held for determination that the mail pieces were not political mail. To the best of my knowledge, mail pieces are no longer being held by various post offices, and applications within the held mail pieces have already been turned in to the clerks or are being tuned in today. You have also been assured that post office boxes are being checked daily, and in most case, more than once a day."
That same day, an Illinois Opportunity Project volunteer delivered 1,246 applications to Kinney's office and was "interrogated" by Kinney, the timeline said.
Later that evening, the Attorney General's office responded that the information Abegg provided had been insufficient, raised new concerns and directed the Illinois Opportunity Project preserve certain records by noon the following day. Abegg responded, reiterating the group was in compliance, referred to the burden the Attorney General’s sudden request for records placed on Illinois Opportunity Project and its vote-by-mail program.
In its Oct. 28 email to Abegg, the Attorney General's office maintained that its interest is in whether ballot applications are promptly delivered to county clerks' offices.
"We also have an interest in ensuring compliance with all applicable state laws," that email says. "Despite your assurances that applications will be promptly delivered, we are receiving conflicting information from the local clerks as to receipt of ballot applications."
That email said that 1,177 applications reportedly delivered by the Illinois Opportunity Project to the Will County Clerk’s Office were not received.
"We have also asked for confirmation that you have, in fact, delivered the applications in Illinois Opportunity Project’s possession to the Cook County Clerk’s Office and the Lake County Clerk’s Office, but you have not done so," that email continued. "We have also asked you for a status of applications in Kankakee County, but you have not provided one. Given the issues identified, it is incumbent on the Office of the Attorney General to ensure that voters of any party are not being potentially disenfranchised."
The same day, an Illinois Opportunity Project volunteer who delivered four vote-by-mail applications to Kinney's office was "interrogated," according to the timeline, and Our Quad Cities Online published an article quoting Rock Island County State's Attorney John McGehee, a Democrat, expressing concern about the group's program. The article did not mention the similar program operated by the Democrat Party.
More articles followed in Our Quad Cities, including the Rock Island County Clerk's Office processing 1,500 absentee ballot applications after they were found sitting at the post office box and an Oct. 31 piece in which Kinney was quoted expressing concern about the undelivered applications and Illinois Opportunity Project’s program.
"In addition, the Democrat state’s attorney and the Democrat County Clerk in Rock Island County, who are working directly with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, have publicly and falsely accused the Illinois Opportunity Project of voter suppression," the Illinois Opportunity Project said in its press release.
"The Illinois Opportunity Project believes they are doing so to assist Democrat Candidates in the upcoming election. IOP has not been notified of any wrongdoing, charges or pending investigation by any official, including the Illinois Attorney General, and believes these actions by the Illinois Attorney General’s office and other public officials is politically motivated."