Candidate for county clerk Aaron Ammons was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding his plans for the county clerk position. Mr. Ammons is currently in an unchallenged primary, although he will be challenged in the general election in November.
Smile Politely: For those readers who don’t know you, could you tell us a bit about your background and why you feel you would be a good fit for Champaign County Clerk?
Aaron Ammons: Champaign County has been my home for over 30 years. My wife, Carol, and I have raised our family here, and I have worked at the University of Illinois as a building service worker for over 16 years. I currently serve as the president of SEIU Local 73 Chapter 119, where I work to protect the rights of workers at the University of Illinois. I am a trustee for the State University Retirement System, where I work to protect the hard-earned retirement savings of many of the residents of this community. And I am an alderman in the city of Urbana, where I focus on making our city a healthy, welcoming, functioning, and inclusive place for all of us.
I believe that I am the best candidate for Champaign County Clerk because over the past 15 years, I’ve been working with groups in CU to eliminate poverty and increase resident engagement in local, state, and national government. I am passionate about making elections fair, free, and accessible to all eligible voters and protecting our voting rights. My experience working with other leaders and elected officials—Democrats and Republicans—on various boards, councils, commissions, and projects has led to positive change in our community, and electing me as county clerk would result in more positive change. The community needs people in office who have vision, passion, and love for participatory democracy. I enjoy educating and inspiring students, returning citizens, the working poor, and everyone else who feels disconnected from the electoral process. I’m the best fit because I will make the county clerk office all that it can be, not just what it’s supposed to be. (Photo from aaronammons.com.)
SP: While the roles of a County Clerk are numerous, they are not always entirely clear to the public. As clerk of Champaign County, what will your duties be?
Ammons: The county clerk is responsible for maintaining birth, death, and marriage certificates as well as offering tax services for local governments, annual reports, and audits, property tax extension information, and so on. The primary responsibility of the county clerk is to be the Election Authority. That responsibility ranges from understanding the laws written to govern elections in Illinois to making sure there are enough ballots at each polling place. It is a very broad but meticulous job.
When I think of duties, I think of what’s due from me. Protecting voter rights while simultaneously working to expand civic engagement within our community are also things I see as the duties of the county clerk. This includes informing the public, especially students and the working poor, about the importance of voting, working with community members to organize voter registration drives, and ensuring that Champaign County has fair, free, and accessible elections.
SP: County Clerks play a large role in ensuring the success of local elections. Voter turnout, education, and fraud prevention are all large parts of this, and topics such as voter ID laws have become hot-button. As county clerk, how will you address these issues?
Ammons: I have been addressing these issues for over a decade as a private citizen because I believe in participatory democracy. I have worked for years to educate myself and to inform voters in Champaign County about their rights and responsibilities as citizens to increase voter turnout. As a community organizer, I initiated a Voter Education Series that highlighted the pivotal moments of the Right to Vote campaign and focused on explaining the voting rights of people in Illinois who have felony convictions. As county clerk, I must take the issue of voter impersonation very serious. The truth is that voter impersonation has been proven time and time again by scholars and research institutions to be a statistical anomaly. In July, US District Judge James D. Peterson struck down parts of Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law, concluding that there is “utterly no evidence” that in-person voter impersonation fraud is an issue in Wisconsin or in the rest of the United States.
I support clean voter registration rolls, and I have been publicly advocating for a program called ERIC. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) is a non-profit organization with the sole mission of assisting states to improve the accuracy of America’s voter rolls and increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens. ERIC is governed and managed by states who choose to join and was formed in 2012 with assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Currently, there are 23 states that participate in the ERIC program, and Illinois is one of them. Election officials from Chicago and the Illinois State Board of Elections said months ago that the ERIC program is superior to Crosscheck.
In a Democracy, voting should be made fair, free and accessible. Voter ID laws disproportionately affect our elderly, low-income, and minority voters. For some of us it seems trivial, but depending on your circumstances, it may be difficult for you to get to an ID center, especially if you live in a rural area, and the cost of getting the documents that are needed to get an ID can be an economic hardship for the poor. Things like Automatic Voter Registration are much more effective ways of increasing voter turnout and protecting our right to vote.
I will address those issues and more through education and advocacy. Tools such as sample ballots allow voters to see exactly what their ballot will look like when they go vote. A sample ballot also gives the voter time to research the candidates and any questions that may be on the ballot before casting their vote. I will be advocating for safer and more secure programs like ERIC to resist voter suppression and protect the voters' information.
SP: Crosscheck, a program that Illinois is currently a part of, is a topic of heated debate. Could you explain, from your perspective, what the program is and whether you favor its continued use?
Ammons: According to EndCrosscheckNow.com, “Crosscheck is a data-sharing program between states, ostensibly used to maintain voter registration rolls; however, since 2011 the program has been managed and manipulated by white nationalist, paid Breitbart contributor, Kris Kobach … .”
Crosscheck is a very unsafe program that uses two data points to flag registered voters to remove them from the voting rolls. A person’s first and last name is one point, and their birthdate is the second. Anyone in America who has the same first and last name and is born on the same date is flagged and can be legally removed from the voter rolls in any of the participating states. To be clear, that number of participating states decreases almost daily due to the dangerous flaws in the program that have been appropriately exposed.
The method of using the same names as a data point has been challenged by several prominent organizations because it has a disproportionate impact on minorities. According to data expert Mark Swedlund, using the US Census Data: if your last name is Kim, there’s a 95-percent chance you’re Asian, if your last name is Hernandez, there’s a 94-percent chance you are Latino, and if your last name is Washington, there’s an 89-percent chance you’re African American.
This results in 1 in 6 Asians, 1 in 7 Latinos, and 1 in 9 African Americans being removed from the voter rolls in participating states across the country. The Crosscheck program purges 300 legally registered voters to find 1—yes 1—potential voter impersonation. By its participation, Illinois is complicit in voter suppression efforts that make it difficult, if not impossible, for legitimate voters to exercise their right to vote.
The qualitative and quantitative data shows that Interstate Crosscheck is a program created to disenfranchise voters all over the country. Crosscheck does not make elections fair and accessible, it does not effectively protect against voter impersonation, and it lacks the prudent security protections to protect voters' personal information. On January 16, 2018, the Illinois State Board of Elections (ISBE) finally agreed to some of the demands made by myself, state officials (such as my wife, Representative Carol Ammons), and a well-organized grassroots effort by Indivisible Chicago. The ISBE released a statement stating that they will not be sharing the voter data of the voters of Illinois with the Crosscheck program until Crosscheck demonstrates the ability to secure that information. I don't believe this is enough; we should be completely out of the program and will continue to push the ISBE to cut ties.
I am the only candidate for county clerk who has publicly and repeatedly pointed out the inferior aspects of the Crosscheck program. In comparison, both Republican candidates for county clerk have said Illinois should continue its participation in the program regardless of the risk to the voter's personal information and the obvious disenfranchisement of thousands of legitimate voters all over the country.
SP: At the federal level, President Trump recently disbanded a commission to find voter fraud in US elections. The commission received bipartisan backlash, although President Trump still stands by it. As county clerk, would you support such a commission? Please answer “yes” or “no” and explain why.
Ammons: Do I believe that we should be vigilant in preventing voter impersonation? Absolutely.
However, I do not support a commission implemented by an official being accused of election tampering in conjunction with a foreign government. I do not think Kris Kobach, who is paid by a White supremacist group, supports banning Muslims from the country, and is the head of the Crosscheck program, should be in charge of the mechanism tasked with investigating voter impersonations. I held those positions before the commission was disbanded due to a refusal by states all across the country to cooperate.
SP: America is known for its abysmally low voter turnout rates, and many advocates have pushed for reforms to ensure that everyone has the right to vote. Among these are: designating election day as a national holiday, holding voting on the weekend, automatic voter registration (which was recently passed in Illinois), and designating two or more days as official “election days.” What are your thoughts on these reforms, and how will you help implement them as clerk?
Ammons: I believe that implementing these reforms is a good start to protecting voter rights and encouraging active civic participation. I believe elections should be fair, free, and accessible, and I will do everything within my authority to increase participation. As clerk, I plan to continue my Voter Education Series campaign, and one of the topics we will explore is Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), and I will continue to explore the initiatives you mentioned. If the voters elect me as their next county clerk, I have pledged to contribute $5,000 of my salary annually to a voter education and outreach fund that would be used to pay for continued outreach. It’s imperative to build a coalition of groups who can work with the clerk’s office to build the voter education movement in Champaign County.
SP: Reforms such as ranked choice voting, range voting, and approval voting have been discussed prominently in other US cities and states. What are your positions on these ballot reforms?
Ammons: Anything that gives voters a nuanced voice without jeopardizing the integrity of our elections is a reform we should consider. Part of my work as the clerk would include hosting an educational series that would bring together experts in the field to have a public discussion on ways to improve the voting process. As a progressive candidate, I am open to innovative and creative ways to encourage more participation from our citizens, and I look forward to more dialogue with our community about the possibility of some of the reforms you’ve mentioned. If the governor asked me tomorrow if Illinois should have ranked choice voting, I would say that absolutely the state should investigate an ethical and accurate way to implement RCV.
SP: If readers have any more questions for you or would like to assist your efforts, how should they contact your campaign?