CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – In the past 24 hours, a lawsuit was filed in Champaign County alleging a top election official mishandled official ballots, a judge ordered that official be removed from all of her Election Day duties, and that same judge scrapped the order, allowing the Champaign County Deputy Clerk to continue working for the office.
On Friday afternoon, lawyers representing Champaign County Board member Jim McGuire filed a lawsuit alleging that Champaign County deputy clerk Michelle Jett mishandled official ballots. Attached to the lawsuit is a sworn affidavit from an election judge in County Clerk Aaron Ammons’ office, which included pictures of ballots on the passenger seat and floor of Jett’s car.
The judge threw out the order after Jett and the county provided evidence they were sample ballots being used to test voting machines.
The election judge could not see exactly how many ballots were unsealed in the car and did not try to speculate as to why the ballots were unsealed in the car, to begin with.
“As an election judge, I understand that there is no lawful explanation for a collection of unsealed official ballots to be stored in the condition I observed,” the election judge wrote in the affidavit.
Within hours of the lawsuit being filed, Circuit Judge Anna Benjamin issued an emergency temporary restraining order, which ordered Jett to be stripped of all of her election-day duties.
The Champaign County Clerk’s office and the Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz were not aware of the lawsuit until just before the judge issued the order. Both offices learned of the suit and also learned of the TRO being issued by WCIA calling their offices for comment.
The county submitted its own filing on the issue, which included a sworn affidavit from Jett. Her account said she was setting up polling locations, and the ballots in question were test ballots. She points to the cut in the top corner of the ballot as proof they are test ballots.
Saturday morning, a conference call between all involved parties and Judge Benjamin ended with Benjamin dissolving the TRO.
Ammons said in a Saturday afternoon news conference he’s concerned voters may distrust the election, but wants to ensure people he’s confident the documents in the car were test ballots. He added that Jett has been reinstated and returned to her normal duties.
He added in the same conference that transporting test ballots in cars or one of their vans is part of regular routine and it’s a process they’ve used the last four elections.
WCIA also reached out to McGuire’s attorney, Jerrold Stocks. He said in a Saturday afternoon email, “The objective is a fair election in which the public has confidence. The picture of “official ballots” on the floorboard and seat of an unattended vehicle owned by a deputy clerk charged with responsibility to conduct elections, minimally, undermines confidence. The County Clerk’s tolerance of such practice cannot be reconciled with an intent to preserve the appearance of a fair election. The Court reasonably has determined that both sides should appear Monday to determine if action is needed to protect the election process moving forward. We reserve specific comment until we address the merits at the hearing on Monday.”
The two sides will return to the courtroom Monday morning, where Judge Benjamin could decide again to restrict Jett from being involved in any of Election Day proceedings.
“The purpose of all of this is to embarrass Mr. Ammons on the eve of an election,” Rietz said. “And it’s outrageous.”
Champaign County Clerk Aaron Ammons released this statement Friday evening.
“The lawsuit is claiming that a member of my staff transported unsealed official ballots to a polling location. This claim is false,” Ammons said in a statement Friday evening. “According to the picture that was taken of the staff members car, there were TWO TEST ballots left in the person’s vehicle. The TWO TEST ballots were the result of the staff member routinely testing printers at early voting locations.”
He said the situation has had an emotional toll on staff members, but said they’re not letting it hold them back as they prepare for Election Day on Tuesday.
Rietz said that Judge Benjamin acknowledged Jett’s affidavit as a credible explanation, and noted the other protections in place to ensure the legitimacy of elections.
The election judge that signed the affidavit is claiming whistleblower status because they are still working as an election judge in the clerk’s office.
Lying in a sworn affidavit is punishable by perjury.
If you’ve not yet voted, Ammons said there are 20 locations within Champaign County to cast your ballot.
This is a developing story. This story will be updated.