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Daily Herald opinion: A show of confidence

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A week and a half after Election Day, Eileen O’Neill Burke, left, declared victory Friday and Clayton Harris III conceded in the close race for Cook County state’s attorney.

Outcome of state’s attorney race quiets doubters, but system still deserves review

With the declaration Friday that Eileen O’Neill Burke has finally won a narrow victory for Cook County state’s attorney, the stage is set for the next chapter in the operation of that troubled office.

O’Neill Burke now will face off against Republican Alderman Bob Fioretti and Libertarian Andrew Charles Kopinski in the November General Election. Whoever wins, and in overwhelmingly Democratic Cook County O’Neill Burke is the odds-on favorite, the office is sure to see some needed structural and procedural changes.

But, one particularly welcome result of O’Neill Burke’s victory is that it belies the railing that the fix was in from the Democratic machine and a corrupt use of the mail-in voting system was sure to shift what appeared to be a win on Election Night into a come-from-behind theft of the office by the machine’s favored candidate, Clayton Harris III.

Both O’Neill Burke and Harris rejected such cynicism and urged their followers to have faith in the system and whatever outcome it produced. But that could hardly silence the increasingly loud crowd of naysayers who are convinced the entire election system is corrupt.

Indeed, it seems likely that even the repudiating evidence of the outcome will only momentarily suppress the conspiracy theorists, rather than silence them. And that is something that policymakers should not ignore.

With the razor-thin margin separating the candidates at the end of vote counting on Election Night, the race was incriminated by two factors — the discovery of 10,000 mail-in ballots after the first round of counting and the long delay after Election Day in getting a conclusion. Mail-in ballots are a great opportunity to make voting more convenient, and they’ve been shown to be secure. Still, they are a great source of suspicion for anyone so inclined, and cases like this only deepen questions about the security of the system.

When 10,000 missing ballots are found out of the blue — no matter how innocent the error — they stiffen the cynicism of the conspiracy prone and they can’t help but raise doubts even among the faithful, especially when the beneficiary of the later count is the candidate supported by a distrusted status quo. As we have seen with the results of the 2020 presidential election, no amount of recounts, lawsuits, judicial reviews or irrefutable evidence can persuade the conspiracy-inclined. Despite all those factors, polls continue to find that significant percentages of the population, especially among the losers, believe fraud resulted in Joe Biden’s election.

It would be nice to let the evidence speak for itself and, more or less as we have done in the case of the presidency, let the system operate as it is designed. It would be nice to simply laugh off the doubters and move on. But, as Donald Trump has shown, there is political capital to be made in repeating and sowing the doubts. Unfortunately, that cannot be ignored.

So, government leaders and policymakers should consider steps to combat it. One is to take extreme measures to ensure that a mistake like the late discovery of ballots cannot occur. It’s impossible, of course, to guarantee that errors or overlooked details won’t occur in any complex system, but every effort must be made to eliminate them.

Another is to consider policy revisions that would reduce the amount of time spent waiting for potential mail-in ballots following Election Day. The current rule in Illinois allows two weeks after Election Day for this counting, as long as ballots are postmarked by Election Day. Such a long period only allows doubts to fester among the susceptible, and these are only fed when, as in the state’s attorney race, periodic reports of new counts show a suspicious candidate gaining. An earlier postmark deadline could help close this gap.

Our leaders would be wise to revisit the deadlines and processes to ensure that no outcome can be tainted by doubt. Reasonable observers know that our elections systems are secure and carefully monitored. We ought not bow to the unreasonable, certainly, but we also must take pains not to give them opportunities to continue to divide our communities and weaken confidence in our systems.

We endorsed O’Neill Burke during the primary, so we are naturally pleased to see she has won. But we also acknowledged Harris’s considerable strengths, and we look forward to, as he promised in a concession statement, his continued work to “keep pushing for effective prosecutions of hate crimes, carjacking, armed robbery, and gun violence that plague our communities.”

It would be a shame to let the outcome of a competition between any two honorable candidates be tainted by suspicion. O’Neill Burke’s ultimate victory helps diminish any such complaints about this election. Our leaders would do well to revise policies and procedures to guarantee that a different outcome in some future close contest can be welcomed with equal confidence.

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