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The national wave of unfounded election-fraud accusations does not spare Illinois

A Black woman with short, dark hair and black mask walks down an aisle with blue voting booths filled with people on both sides, she holds a white piece of paper in her hand.
Manuel Martinez
/
WBEZ
Chicago voters cast their ballots in the November 2020 election

Conspiracy theorists inundate election officials across the state with form letters demanding voter records and threatening lawsuits.

No Republican nominee for president has won Illinois since 1988, with Joe Biden beating Donald Trump by more than 1 million votes in the last election two years ago.

As a reliably blue state, Illinois has been largely spared from the viral conspiracy theories about vote fraud and physical threats against elections officials that continue to plague many swing states, including Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Now, though, Illinois is on the receiving end in the latest wave of copy-cat letters from conservative election conspiracy theorists across the country. They are threatening legal action against Illinois elections officials and the local authorities who run the voting process, echoing Trump’s long-running complaints that he was robbed of a second term.

In one such letter, a woman from south-suburban Mokena wrote to county clerks, “I am an aggrieved citizen of the United States and the state of Illinois, and I am contemplating filing a lawsuit against the relevant parties pertaining to the continuing concerns I have regarding the integrity of all elections that took place after December 31, 2019.”

This letter and other similar missives demand that election authorities store and provide copies of a laundry list of records. In the Mokena woman’s “notice of prospective litigation” to Chicago election officials last month, she demanded authorities maintain “paper ballots … which may be necessary for a post-tabulation audit.”

The woman’s name was redacted in documents WBEZ received from election authorities.

Despite offering no proof of election fraud and making no specific accusations, some of the letter writers make vague insinuations. One letter merely told Chicago officials there is “reason to believe” elections were not fair and there exists “credible information” that supposedly has emerged about vote fraud.

In recent weeks, such letters have gone to the city of Chicago’s Board of Election Commissioners, the Cook County Clerk’s office — which runs elections in the suburbs just outside of Chicago — and the Illinois State Board of Elections. A spokesman for the state election board said officials believe the letters have gone to clerks in every county in Illinois.

The state election board’s spokesman, Matt Dietrich, said officials find the accusations “extremely frustrating” because they are “based on no evidence whatsoever.”

“All we can do is emphasize to them all the security measures in place since long before this idea of widespread vote fraud came into being,” Dietrich said.

Bailey says there’s “lot of concern about voter fraud”

Darren Bailey, the Republican nominee for governor, has acknowledged there was no reason at all to doubt the validity of Biden’s election.

Regardless, Bailey has sought to make “election integrity” a cornerstone of his campaign for the state’s highest office in the November general election.

“As you know, there is a lot of concern about voter fraud out there, and there’s a lot of frustration,” Bailey said in an interview with WBEZ this week. “So, first and foremost, we have to restore integrity to our process. But there is no doubt that the constitutional process was followed [in the 2020 presidential election], and [Biden] is president.”

Bailey – who was endorsed by Trump before the GOP primary – boasts of the series of bills he has proposed as a state legislator in Springfield. He said they would “restore confidence in elections” in Illinois. None have passed.

One such bill that Bailey co-sponsored with other far-right state legislators a few years ago sought to have the state elections board participate in the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which was highly touted by some Republicans in other states. But the program was suspended as part of a legal settlement in 2019.

Earlier in his campaign, before winning the GOP primary in June, Bailey promised to create an “Election Integrity Task Force.”

“As governor, Darren will ensure every legal vote is counted quickly and accurately,” according to an archived page for the task force at the Bailey campaign’s website. “We can trust Darren to restore Illinois and restore Americans’ faith in our election process.”

But since then, the campaign has removed mention of the task force from the website, and instead is focusing on recruiting his supporters to become poll watchers for the November election against Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker.

The head of Bailey’s push to recruit pollwatchers is David Paul Blumenshine, who organized a busload of protesters from central Illinois who attended the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

Bailey said his campaign has trained about 1,500 poll watchers. But an aide did not say where those poll watchers are registered or where they would be assigned to help during the election.

“We’re hoping to get close to 4,000 poll watchers,” Bailey told WBEZ. “I can assign these workers in precincts where we feel the need to assign them and, you know, data shows that when there is a trained poll watcher on the ground that, you know, is not being bullied and they know what they’re doing, fraud can be curbed.”

Without making any specific accusations, Bailey said, “We’re letting a lot slide under our noses.”

A nationwide effort spurred by the “My Pillow” CEO

The letters sent recently to election authorities across the state are similarly rife with unsubstantiated insinuations of general wrongdoing in the voting process.

One of the letter writers was Michelle Turney, a former Chicago police officer who filed to run for Illinois secretary of state as a Republican candidate but got knocked off the ballot after her nominating signatures petitions were challenged.

Turney had advocated for the sale of “all voting machines.” A social media account showed her attendance at the rally that then-President Trump spoke at before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing in Washington.

In an email she signed on Sept. 3, Turney wrote to Chicago elections officials that, “Evidence continues to amass which demonstrates that America has not had free or fair elections since 2017. I have reason to believe your organizations may have directly or indirectly contributed to the fraudulently installed individuals whose actions have resulted in the destruction of our communities.”

The email went on to say, “I AM CONSIDERING SUING YOU FOR YOUR AND YOUR ORGANIZATION’S INVOLVMENT [sic] IN THE FRAUDELENT [sic] ELECTIONS THAT WILL SOON BE PROVEN TO HAVE TAKEN PLACE SINCE 2017. Any attempts by your or your organization to destroy the election records and accompanying relevant documentation that I, as your benefactor and employer, have demanded [of] you will be met with the harshest possible criminal and civil repercussions available under the law.”

Turney did not respond to messages seeking comment.

She and another man from Burr Ridge had sent the Cook County clerk’s office letters that are identical to the message the Mokena woman sent around the same time to Chicago election officials.

Votebeat, a nonpartisan website covering voting and elections, reported earlier this month that many of the letters were sent to practically every state in response to calls from conspiracy theorists, including Mike Lindell, the CEO of My Pillow and Trump supporter who continues to state without proof that the 2020 election was stolen.

Lindell and others have called on sympathizers to request these records, providing them with a template that many are using in their own states. The requesters are then directed to provide whatever they get back to a central repository for analysis.

Jessica Huseman, Votebeat’s editorial director, said the requesters are seeking something known in elections parlance as “cast vote record.” That cannot be used to show fraud anyway, she said.

“There’s no indication that any of these records are going to be used productively,” she said. “Really, it’s just a misinformation campaign. But more than that, I think it is a campaign to kind of grind these small offices to a halt and deluge them with public records requests, and that’s unfortunate.”

Huseman said the requests for voluminous records picked up after Lindell issued a call for supporters to do that a few weeks ago.

“These are clearly very organized public records campaigns, even though they’re meant to look like they’re grassroots because somebody puts their individual name on it,” she said. “But obviously these folks aren’t just conveniently writing the exact same words.”

Dozens of threats of litigation — but no lawsuit yet

A spokesman for the Chicago election authority said the agency had received three different form letters, including one with the subject line of “Class Action Lawsuit,” and about a dozen senders have used each of those three templates.

Officials for the Chicago election board, the Cook County clerk and the state elections board do not report receiving any of the physical threats seen in other states where Biden beat Trump only narrowly.

And Chicago and state elections officials say nobody has acted on their threats to sue them.

Yet, so-called “election deniers” have occasionally made wild and deeply personal accusations against officials who run the balloting in Illinois, according to email exchanges obtained by WBEZ.

In April 2021, one man wrote to an Illinois election authorities, saying they were among hundreds whom he contacted, imploring them to overturn Trump’s defeat.

“I have wrote [sic] over 1,100 lawmakers from around the nation and NOT ONE has been able to prove, show, or even tell me any evidence that there was no voter fraud in the last election! NOT ONE!!!” wrote the man. “I wouldn’t put it past any of you pathetic, sick pigs that you all molest children!”

It was one of 15 emails the same man sent to the state election board over several months.

Another man wrote to the state demanding “a full forensic audit,” saying, “I am hearing stories on the internet that Trump won Illinois.”

A state elections official replied that officials do conduct audits.

“The 2020 General Election has been certified,” the official wrote to the man. “We conducted our statewide random retabulation as required by statute and the results were accurate.”

Dave McKinney is a reporter at WBEZ in Chicago.