A recent court decision from a Champaign County judge declares Republican candidate Jim Root the victor in the 2018 race for Macon County sheriff. However, it appears that seeing an end to litigation over the election is far from over.
Current sheriff Tony Brown stated over the weekend that he plans to appeal the order made by Champaign County Circuit Court Judge Anna M. Benjamin on Friday, May 28. The order declared that Root won the race by 16 votes, 19,579 to Brown’s 19,563.
Brown expresses disappointment in the ruling
“Obviously, I am disappointed as far as the judge’s ruling,” Brown stated. “We plan on appealing.”
Brown, who was sworn into office in December 2018, stated that he will also be seeking to remain as sheriff pending the outcome of the appeal process.
Brown noted that the appeal would focus on early voting ballots cast at the Macon County Clerk’s office that were deemed null and void as a result of lacking identification marks from an election judge.
Breakdown of the court decision
In the 36-page court order from Benjamin, it reflects crucial information to the case involving a 39,739 vote total in the race, which included 57 uncounted ballots, an agreement between Root and Brown in July 2020. This figure also included 1,337 disputed ballots.
According to figures from the recall last summer, Root tallied up an additional 605 votes to Brown’s 567 from the disputed ballots, bringing an overall in-person voting count to 19,569 to 19,549.
Brown picked up three additional votes from vote-by-mail ballots, bringing his total to 19,552.
Heavily litigated arguments regarding in-person early voting would not net an additional vote for either Root or Brown. However, regarding ballots marked as “voter intent” would net Root an additional two votes, increasing his total to 19,571. Root would also receive an additional vote based on alleged distinguishing marks, increasing the count to 19,572.
Similar to in-person early voting, litigated arguments on remade ballots would net Root three additional votes and Brown eight votes, making the existing count 19,575 to Brown’s 19,560.
A dispute surrounding the two “found ballots” would net neither candidate any additional votes. However, Root would earn four additional votes out of seven miscellaneous ballots. Brown would earn the other three, bringing the total to 19,579 for Root and 19,563 for Brown.
Overall, the recount netted 615 additional votes for Root compared to Brown’s 581. As a result, 198 ballots will not be counted with 395 undervotes and four overvotes previously agreed on.
Brown: Appeal to the appellate court looming
“It is unfortunate that individuals that actually cast their votes, the early votes, in the clerk’s office, and witnessed by his staff, what have you, won’t be counted, Brown said.”
Brown states that he’s not bitter, but notes that “it’s a process, and we just have to trust it.”
“We’re just doing this for the best [interests] of the voters,” Brown adds.
Brown said that once the appeal is ruled upon, he will abide by that ruling, regardless of who it favors.
“Once we get through the appeal process, and they say yea or nay, we’re fine,” Brown said. “I just want to make sure that people who actually go in and actually vote that the process itself is handled correctly, and to make sure they have their right.”
Brown is seeking for the appeal to be acted upon in an expedient matter.
“We’re going to try applying for one to see if we can actually get one that gets the results back in 30 to 45 days,” Brown said.
Case bogged down by slow proceedings
Unfortunately, speed has not been a guiding principle in just over two-and-a-half years of litigation. The legal fight began shortly after Election Day 2018 when Brown was declared the winner by a single vote, 19,655 to Root’s 19,654.
A discovery recount of ballots followed a month later to gather evidence in order to persuade a judge to issue an order for a full recount. Benjamin was brought in as an impartial jurist to handle the legal battle, who then ordered a full hand recount in July 2020.
Brown would re-emerge victorious with a margin of 18 votes, but the recount would reveal a much larger problem: dozens upon dozens of disputed ballots and two uncounted ballots in favor of Root found in a ballot tabulating machine, forgotten well after the 2018 count was certified.
Benjamin presided over five court hearings that concluded in February as lawyers on both sides, Chris Sherer representing Brown and John Fogarty Jr. representing Root. Both sides fought over a range of issues from which ballots should count to considered questions as to whether there was election fraud.
Root: We know Brown is appealing but we want a smooth transition
“We filed this case two-and-a-half years ago, we presented our case, and the judge has ruled on it,” Root stated. “We know that Tony Brown has an appeal process.”
“Since it has been ruled on and the judge has clearly ruled on a very narrow window of items,” Root added. “We’re hoping he will allow for a smooth transition in the next couple of weeks.”
Fogarty stated that they will oppose any action resulting in further delay of his client assuming the office of sheriff pending the outcome of the appeal.
Brown, much like Root, wants to see this process come to an end.
“I agree. We want to get it over with,” Brown said. “But the thing is, we want to make sure the process itself is done right.”
Root’s legal counsel believes appeal with change nothing
Fogarty maintains that his client will prevail, noting that the likely challenge cited by Brown for appeal lacks merit.
“We are not unsympathetic, but election judge initials are required,” Fogarty notes. “It’s the law [and] there’s no provision in statutory or case law allowing a ballot cast early, only because the vote was cast at the county clerk’s office or to be counted if not properly processed. It’s just that simple.”
The ruling detailed arguments made by Sherer citing an exception to be considered regarding the mandate that the ballots be initialed by an election judge. However, Benjamin noted that there was “no clear and convincing evidence” that the exception applied to the early in-person ballots.
The appeal will be heard and considered by a panel of three judges in the appellate court system. The next stage in the appeal process would be a request to the Illinois Supreme Court for consideration.
“I’m happy the justice system did its part and saw the true outcome of the election,” Root said. “This is all about the will of the people.”
Root returned to the office Monday night, May 31.
“It will be fine,” Root stated. “It will be just like any other day of going to work. I go to work, I do my job, and I go home.”
Root joined the Macon County Sheriff’s Department in 1996 and continues to serve as a Lieutenant. However, he plans to begin the process of getting up to speed on things in preparation for being sworn in as sheriff.
No comment on campaigning in 2022, Buffett to run in primary
Root would not comment regarding his intent in running for sheriff in 2022.
“Let’s savor the 2018 election win before we start the 2022 process,” he said.
Should he decide to run, the Republican primary could potentially be contested as former Sheriff Howard Buffett has indicated in campaign finance documentation that he will run as a Republican in the upcoming election. However, changes to the election process in the General Assembly could push the Illinois primaries from March to June, further complicating the electoral process.
Brown also withheld comments regarding his intentions for 2022, stating that he wanted to get past the legal battle before making a decision.
This article was originally published in the June 2, 2021 issue of the Golden Prairie News and Blue Mound Leader.
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Jake Leonard, a broadcast media and journalism veteran, is the editor-in-chief of Heartland Newsfeed. Leonard is also GM and program director of Heartland Newsfeed Radio Network, wrestling editor and contributing writer for Ambush Sports, a contributing writer for My Sports Vote and Midwest Sports Network, and a former contributor to Bleacher Report and Overtime Heroics. He resides at home in Nokomis, Ill. with his dog Buster.