Elections in Illinois are often handled on a regional basis by the County Clerk. Larger communities like Aurora and Rockford have independent boards, but some of these groups are consolidating into their county governments.
Our story begins in DeKalb County, which recently purchased a set of used voting machines from neighboring Kane County. Clerk and Recorder Doug Johnson says Kane no longer needed them, and it was a way to update the voting infrastructure without waiting for the state to approve new machines.
"I kind of parallel it to when a drug company's trying to get a new drug to come online and the testing goes through with the FDA and all of them. It takes a lot of time and expense," he said. "So a lot of the companies who produce this election equipment are not really bringing new equipment online because it costs too much to get it certified."
This deal was possible because Aurora recently voted to fold its election commission into the Kane County government. The Aurora commission was meant to address the specific needs of a large, urban district. But Kane County Clerk John Cunningham says the decision to dissolve it was based on efficiency.
"We would give them a certain amount of money to run the elections, and anything above that amount of money had to be covered by the budget of the municipality," he said. "It was costing the city of Aurora up to $720,000 of the city money."
Aurora put forth a referendum to consolidate the Aurora Election Commission, and it took effect in June. Cunningham says the clerk's office will use some of the money it paid to Aurora to take on the extra voting precincts. Also the city will have electronic voting.
"They walk in, there's one process, the judge’s job is easier," he said. "They get three random numbers, they put that into an e-slate, which is our main thing. They vote on that. There's a paper trail that shows them how they voted, then they walk out and get a little button that says 'I Voted.'"
Meanwhile, DuPage County has a separate election commission, but it's not tied to a specific city. County Clerk Paul Hinds says that's changing because of a new law.
"The bill becomes effective January 1 of 2019, and at that point in time, the County Board can now pass a resolution abolishing the election commission and moving the duties to the County Clerk's office," he said.
Like with Kane County, Hinds says the consolidation would be a better way to allocate resources. In this case, he says two bodies won't have to hire separate staff.
"The state's attorney becomes my attorney rather than going to an outside attorney. The IT department, I'm going to work with the county IT department, rather than having a separate, stand-alone system," he said.
In the short term, Hinds says voters won't see much change. But he likes the idea of having the County Clerk act as a central location for a variety of services, including its existing duties.
"I think by actually having an office where, now it's like 'oh, we also go there for the elections,' and the public service that we give, and the public service we provide, I think is going to be a step up."
Dr. Kurt Thurmaier is head of Northern Illinois University's School of Public Administration. He says these consolidations are more common in urban areas.
"You would think that counties in rural areas, for example, would benefit if it were about efficiency, from say having one payroll system for four counties or one budget officer for four counties and so on. But rural counties tend to say, 'oh no no, we have to keep our own, and we want our own local control,'" he said.
Thurmaier says the most successful pitches for these consolidations don't revolve around saving money, because the actual dollar amounts aren't very large.
"If you tell voters, on the other hand, we can be more effective in economic development, our communities can prosper better if we collaborate, if we provide better service and so on, voters are much more likely to say, 'well, let’s do that,'" he said.
Winnebago County has a referendum on the November ballot that would consolidate the Rockford Board of Elections with the County Clerk. But the success of that measure, and other efforts to consolidate, is still up in the air.