ROCK ISLAND — U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is calling on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Department of Justice to investigate the handling of absentee ballot requests in Rock Island County.
Sen. Durbin, the minority whip, said in a news release Friday he is responding to incidents in which county clerk Karen Kinney asked local and federal investigators to look into possible voter suppression. Ms. Kinney said more than 1,500 absentee ballot applications sat in a Rock Island Post Office for weeks and that voters began contacting her office to inquire about the status of their applications.
The Chicago-based non-profit Illinois Opportunity Project (IOP), a group co-founded by conservative radio talk show host Dan Proft, claimed responsibility for the Rock Island mailbox in question but denied allegations it was trying to suppress absentee voter applications.
"Thankfully, following the discovery, the absentee ballot requests in Rock Island were forwarded on to the County Clerk, who has indicated that all of of the applicants will be mailed absentee ballots," Sen. Durbin said in his letter to Attorney General Lynch.
"Efforts to suppress this fundamental right (voting) should be promptly investigated, remedied and, if appropriate, prosecuted."
When contacted Friday, Ms. Kinney said she was pleased Sen. Durbin is asking the Justice Department to look into the matter.
"I'm glad," Ms. Kinney said. "What were their (IOP) intentions? Did they plan on turning the ballot applications over or only did it because we called them out?
"We smoked them (IOP) out."
Pat Hughes, co-founder of the IOP, denied any wrongdoing on Friday.
"My response to Sen. Durbin is this is the height of political grandstanding," Mr. Hughes said. "A U.S. Senator should have better things to do than political grandstanding.
"Also, the senator is clearly uninformed about the facts and circumstances surrounding the story. We've done absolutely nothing wrong. I suspect everyone involved — from the Democratic county clerk to the Democratic state's attorney and the Democratic Attorney General — know we've done nothing wrong and are using it for political opportunism."
Ms. Kinney notified local authorities last week that a potential voter suppression scheme may be going on in the county. She said voters assumed the IOP's P.O. Box was the county clerk's P.O. Box when they sent their applications in.
"I became suspicious when my mother handed me an envelope that she had not requested, not to mention the phone calls we are getting from voters asking where their ballots were when we had no record of them requesting a vote-by-mail ballot," Ms. Kinney said last week.
Rock Island Postmaster Mark Curley said Friday absentee ballots did not languish for weeks at the post office. Ms. Kinney said she was told different by other postal officials at the post office.
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In Illinois, third-party organizations, such as the IOP, can send voters applications requesting a mail-in ballot. Since Ms. Kinney reported her suspicions, the AG's office has cautioned voters to remain alert and monitor if they actually received a ballot in the mail.
Ms. Kinney said the absentee ballots were eventually brought into her office on Oct. 27 and 28. She said the man that brought them in gave his name as Evan.
When contacted, Evan confirmed he worked for the IOP and confirmed he delivered the applications Oct. 27 and 28 from the Rock Island Post Office to the county clerk's office. He said the IOP had him doing a different job now but did not want to comment further.
"I literally did my job, and that's all I did," Evan said. "I just want it to go away."
Mr. McGehee said the case has not been closed.
"It's an open inquiry," he said. "It's a bit of an issue for us locally. It's a federal office that's involved, and that's the U.S. Postal Service. We don't have jurisdiction over a federal post office.
"I'm glad to hear Sen. Durbin asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into this."
According to information provided by the IOP, on Oct. 28, Cara Hendrickson, chief of Lisa Madigan's public interest division, sent a letter to IOP attorney Heidi Abegg, of Washington, D.C., inquiring about absentee ballot applications not being promptly delivered to county clerks.
In addition to Rock Island County, the AG's office also inquired about issues in Cook, Will, Lake and Kankakee counties specifically related to the IOP.
"This office has been contacted by county clerks and confused constituents, and both groups have expressed concern about these mailings," Ms. Hendrickson wrote to the IOP attorney.
Ms. Abegg told the AG's office that, "I have repeatedly explained that mail pieces which 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 a determination that the mail pieces were not political mail.
"You have also been assured that post office boxes are being checked daily, and in most cases, more than once a day."