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State authorities are looking into release of voter data that includes McLean County

A page on the McLean County Times website.
A page on the McLean County Times website.

A series of websites with ties to a conservative political activist has published the full names, addresses and birthdates of thousands of Illinois voters, including those residing in McLean County.

The McLean County Times, one of more than 30 websites owned by Local Government Information Services [LGIS], has published a series of articles that purportedly examine “who voted” or “how” a given precinct voted in the 2020 presidential election. But those articles provide little context or analysis of any electoral trends and instead are largely populated by identifying voter information — the release of which is being contested by the Illinois State Board of Elections [SBE].

The McLean County Times is one of more than 30 websites owned by Local Government Information Services.
The McLean County Times is one of more than 30 websites owned by Local Government Information Services.

SBE spokesperson Matt Dietrich said the state’s top election authority contacted LGIS last week, asking the company to take down those articles that are featured on its 30-plus websites across the state. As of Thursday, Dietrich said LGIS had not yet removed the articles despite agreeing to do so by Monday.

“I'm trying to get an answer from them [about] why they are still up — or at minimum, why they don't simply remove the dates of birth of the voters that they're publishing,” Dietrich said in an interview.

Dietrich said the issue is complicated and without precedent.

LGIS obtained voter information from the SBE back in 2016, when it was still tied to a political action committee [PAC] called Liberty Principles, which at the time was chaired by Chicago-based conservative activist Dan Proft.

The state election authority is required to make what are called voter files available to registered PACs or other government entities; the files contain information on registered voters throughout the state. That information is used for campaign or other political purposes and is not intended for publication.

But Dietrich said at some point after LGIS obtained the file’s information, LGIS separated from its associated PAC.

“That being the case, we maintain at the State Board of Elections that once that happened, LGIS no longer has the right to access that 2016 file,” he said. “It was provided under the condition that it be used only for political purposes, which would mean something related to a political campaign. It was not provided to make public voters' dates of birth and specific street addresses, as has been done now.”

Dietrich said the SBE has talked with Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office, but no clear path has been charted yet. The hope is that LGIS will, at a minimum, remove the full addresses and birthdates of voters, though Dietrich added it “shouldn’t take the attorney general threatening to file charges against a company for the company to do the right thing.”

He also said the data appears to be faulty, with some voters' information being incorrectly reported or missing from the articles altogether.

It’s unclear why the information was published last week, years after LGIS first obtained the data. LGIS’ public contact page does not accept submissions; an email to an inbox for the McLean County Times was not immediately responded to on Thursday.

What is the McLean County Times?

LGIS is one of five companies under the umbrella of Metric Media, which publishes a series of around 1,400 websites that ostensibly offer local news to specific communities. But the websites often feature data-heavy articles that are created “algorithmically” [not written by a human] and in addition to their founders’ backgrounds in conservative activism, the parent companies have worked alongside and taken money from right-wing advocacy groups.

Stories featured on these websites have tended to promote only Republican candidates and platforms while simultaneously smearing opponents or rivals, according to analyses of the articles by the Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times and others. Critiques of these practices have focused on the blurred lines between the websites purporting to be general news sites while simultaneously pushing propagandic political messaging. On its website, Metric Media says it “publishes over 5 million articles per month.”

In 2016, the Illinois Press Association issued a statement saying the publications would not be eligible for membership in the statewide newspaper group.

“In our opinion, these ‘newspapers,’ these websites, these publications do not meet the definition of a newspaper set forth in our bylaws,” current Illinois Press Association president and CEO Don Craven said in an interview Thursday.“ ... And there’s a requirement in our bylaws that a publication show a genuine commitment to local news and local content. We’ve found that lacking as well.”

Earlier this week, the McLean County GOP shared a link to the McLean County Times’ articles on voter data. Dennis Grundler, the local party chair, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, though the party shared to its Facebook page late Thursday evening that it had removed the post in question after being "the first to draw attention" to the McLean County Times articles.

"While not illegal, we believe the release of information to be unethical. The MCGOP has distanced itself from the Times by removing links to its website from our webpage," the statement read.

The McLean County Democrats said in a statement also on social media that the information is likely “a warning to [GOP] voters that they’re being monitored” and “an effort to discourage and dissuade Democrats from voting — out of fear they’ll be tracked and potentially threatened.”

Dietrich said people who are concerned about the release of their data should contact the SBE by emailing dietrich@elections.il.gov. He also noted the state board of elections stopped providing birth dates in voter files in 2018.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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