CHICAGO (Legal Newsline) - The co-founder of the Illinois Opportunity Project, a research and public policy enterprise with ties to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, claims state Attorney General Lisa Madigan is trying to thwart his group’s early voting program to keep her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, in control of a Democratic supermajority.

Pat Hughes, who also serves as president of the Liberty Justice Center and ran in 2010 for U.S. Senate, finishing second to Sen. Mark Kirk in the Republican primary for the seat vacated by President Barack Obama, says it’s politics as usual. IOP co-founder Dan Proft heads Liberty Principles political action committee, which is partly funded by the Republican governor.

“I think this is a direct attempt to harass, and to suppress votes,” Hughes told Legal Newsline. “I think this is political. They’re trying to suppress votes they don’t think will necessarily be helpful to their cause.”

Hughes said it all started last month, after his group, which promotes legislative solutions “in advance of free markets and free minds,” had dropped off applications at post offices in seven Illinois counties, including Rock Island County and Cook County.

Such early voting programs are pretty common in Illinois, he noted. It was in Rock Island County that the controversy began when a county clerk brought attention to ballots that had been sitting in a post office box for three weeks.

Those who are interested in voting by mail fill out the applications and then send them in a self-enclosed, self-stamped envelope back to the group at various P.O. boxes in each county. The group then collects the applications and delivers them to the various county clerks. The clerks then send ballots to those individuals who filled out an application, so they can vote in advance.

“The purpose of the program is get people to vote, plain and simple,” Hughes said, noting that there is “absolutely nothing problematic or illegal” about his group’s non-partisan program, “in concept and execution.”

Maura Possley, spokeswoman for Attorney General Madigan, said the office received a number of complaints regarding vote-by-mail ballot applications.

“In response, we followed up to investigate all of the complaints and we are continuing that work in an effort to make sure that completed vote-by-mail applications have been delivered to county clerks and no voter is disenfranchised as a result of a problem with this process,” she said in an email to Legal Newsline. “We also worked with the State Board of Elections to issue a press release to urge voters to monitor the status of their vote by mail applications.”

In that press release, issued late last month, Madigan’s office assured voters that third-party organizations are allowed to send voters applications to receive a mail-in ballot, but told voters to stay alert and monitor whether they receive a ballot in the mail.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, voters who applied for a vote-by-mail ballot but did not receive it or have not sent in a completed ballot retain the right to vote in person during the early voting period or on election day.

Possley said as part of the office’s efforts, it contacted both political parties, among other organizations.

She said it contacted the Illinois Opportunity Project because the complaints raised specific concerns about the organization’s vote-by-mail efforts and whether the applications were being delivered to county clerks.

“Specifically, we have received complaints regarding voter confusion,” she said. “Because the Illinois Opportunity Project’s mailings do not identify that organization and, instead, are sent from ‘[Name of County] County Vote By Mail Center,’ they have led to voter confusion regarding whether they are official documents from the counties.

“Additionally, complaints raised the specific concern that completed applications returned to the Illinois Opportunity Project’s ‘[Name of County] County Vote By Mail Center’ post office box were not being picked up and delivered to the county clerk in a timely manner.”

Possley noted that county clerks have stressed that the vote-by-mail process is very time sensitive because of the short time frame for their offices to process the applications and mail ballots to voters in time for the ballots to be returned.

“Our concern has been and continues to be that all voters who choose to vote by mail have their votes counted,” she said.

But IOP argues the Attorney General’s Office, through its investigation, is the one suppressing voter turnout. In a press release issued Wednesday, IOP went as far as accuse the office of harassing individuals affiliated with its program.

The project claims it has received threatening phone calls and numerous demanding letters from the office.

The office sent IOP a letter, dated Oct. 27, with a “lengthy and invasive” list of demands and ordered that the project respond by noon the next day.

Demands from the Attorney General’s Office throughout the correspondence included, according to IOP:

- Detailed information about individuals submitting applications;

- The dates on which vote-by-mail correspondence was sent in each county, as well as future plans to send mailers in Illinois, including the dates and addresses of future mailings;

- A requirement that the Illinois Opportunity Project allow an escort from the Attorney General’s Office to accompany them when delivering vote-by-mail correspondences to various county clerk’s offices;

- Samples of each mailer, including all pages, inserts and envelopes of the mailer, as well as an identification of the post office box in each county to which the applications have been directed;

- Proprietary information about procedures and processing of the mail; and

- A demand that the Illinois Opportunity Project preserve all records related to the vote-by-mail program.

“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,” the project said in a statement.

IOP said it believes the Democrat state’s attorney and the Democrat county clerk in Rock Island County, in particular, are working directly with the Attorney General’s Office. The project said the state’s attorney and clerk have publicly and falsely accused it of voter suppression.

Rock Island County also is the site of a contested race between Democrat Mike Halpin and Republican Brandi McGuire, Hughes pointed out.

Halpin, on his Facebook page, recently referred to the comments made by the state’s attorney and clerk, blaming Republicans for unreturned ballot applications.

“It’s sad to see the Republicans resorting to this, but I’m not shocked,” he wrote.

Hughes contends it’s all a ploy.

“The statements by the county clerk and the state’s attorney are based on nothing. We have done nothing wrong. All we’re doing is helping people vote,” he said. “But now, these statements are being used as political fodder, a political football, to advance a Democrat, to make sure [Michael] Madigan can hold onto power in the state legislature.

“This is all politically motivated.”

Right now, in Illinois, Democrats have a veto-proof supermajority in the statehouse. Basically, that means Democrats can pass whatever law they want.

But should Democrats lose some seats come Tuesday, things could change.

“[Michael] Madigan has been the most powerful politician in our state for decades,” Hughes said. “We’re in the middle of a number of contested elections throughout the state that could mean holding onto or losing that supermajority.”

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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