Appeal from Circuit Court of Champaign County No. 03MR151. Honorable John G. Townsend, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Turner
In March 2003, plaintiff, the State Board of Elections (Elections Board), filed a complaint for mandamus against Mark Sheldon, in his official capacity as the county clerk of Champaign County, seeking an order requiring Shelden to furnish and release the telephone numbers of voters registered in Champaign County to the Elections Board. After a bench trial, the trial court denied in part and granted in part the Elections Board's request for mandamus.
The Elections Board appeals, contending the trial court erred by not requiring Shelden to also submit voters' telephone numbers that were submitted to Shelden by the voters on paper voter-registration cards and change-of-address forms after May 29, 2002, but not entered into the voter's computer-based registration file. We note Shelden has not cross-appealed the court's partial grant of the mandamus complaint. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
In May 2002, Shelden stopped including a voter's telephone number in the voter-registration information that he furnished to the Elections Board. On June 4, 2002, Shelden issued a press release stating he would no longer keep track of phone numbers in his voter files and would delete all numbers already in the system. This way political parties and candidates could not obtain voters' phone numbers through his office or from the Elections Board. Shelden explained he had received complaints from voters about their telephone numbers being available and felt political parties and candidates have been harassing voters. In a letter dated June 17, 2002, William D. McGrath informed the Elections Board of Shelden's press release and questioned the legality of his actions. In July 2002, the Elections Board held a meeting to discuss McGrath's letter, at which both McGrath and Shelden spoke about the issue.
In September 2002, the Elections Board determined the voter-registration information submitted by Shelden was noncompliant because it lacked the voters' telephone numbers. In December 2002, A.L. Zimmer, the Elections Board's general counsel, sent Shelden a letter, informing him that his last data submission was noncompliant since it lacked telephone numbers and requesting compliance by December 26, 2002. In February 2003, the Illinois Attorney General's office and Shelden exchanged letters regarding Shelden's noncompliance.
In March 2003, the Elections Board filed its compliant for mandamus, requesting the trial court to enter an order directing Shelden to furnish and release to it the telephone numbers of voters registered after May 1, 1990, and for all registered voters irrespective of registration date, if such information is available on the voter-registration card submitted by the voter. In April 2003, Shelden filed a motion to dismiss, contending the Elections Board had already deemed his data submissions compliant and reimbursed him for his submissions. After holding a hearing, the court denied Shelden's motion to dismiss. Shelden then filed an answer, asserting the following affirmative defenses: (1) the Elections Board could not contest the adequacy of his data submissions because it had already deemed them compliant; (2) the Elections Board was also barred from contesting compliancy because of a statement made by one of its employees indicating Shelden did not have to furnish telephone numbers outside of a computerized registration file; and (3) if granted, the relief sought by the Elections Board would create public disorder and confusion because the Elections Board accepts data submissions from other counties that do not include voters' telephone numbers.
In December 2003, the trial court held a bench trial on the Elections Board's complaint. In January 2004, the court entered a written order, granting the complaint in part and denying it part. Specifically, the court concluded the voter records at issue could be divided into the following three categories: (1) computer records of telephone numbers that were deleted from the May 2002 submission; (2) telephone numbers not included in computerized voter-registration files subsequent to the May 2002 submission, whether on paper records or in separate computer files that are not the voter-registration files; and (3) telephone numbers not submitted in May 2002 because they were deleted based on a voter's request. The court then granted a writ of mandamus as to the first category of records because the records were "available" within the meaning of the law. However, the court denied a writ as to the other two categories because the Elections Board had not sought relief as to the third category and the law does not impose a clear duty on Shelden to submit the records in the second category. Specifically, the court found the law does not impose a clear duty on Shelden to collect telephone numbers, to include them in the computerized record, and then to submit them to the Elections Board in the voter-registration file. The court also denied all of Shelden's affirmative defenses.
The Elections Board asserts the trial court erred by not granting a writ of mandamus for the second category of records, which is those paper or computer records containing voter telephone numbers that are not part of the computerized voter-registration file.
A court may only grant the extraordinary remedy of mandamus relief to direct a public official to perform a ministerial duty that does not involve the official's exercise of judgment or discretion. Thus, to obtain mandamus relief, a petitioner must demonstrate (1) a clear right to the requested relief, (2) the respondent's clear duty to act, and (3) the respondent's clear authority to comply with the terms of the writ. Hadley v. Ryan, 345 Ill. App. 3d 297, 301, 803 N.E.2d 48, 52 (2003). Generally, a reviewing court will only reverse a trial court's decision to grant or deny mandamus when it is against the manifest weight of the evidence or where the court abused its discretion. Durbin v. Gilmore, 307 Ill. App. 3d 337, 339, 718 N.E.2d 292, 294 (1999). However, where the court's judgment turns solely on a statute's construction, which is a question of law, our review is de novo. Villarreal v. Village of Schaumburg, 325 Ill. App. 3d 1157, 1161, 759 N.E.2d 76, 80 (2001). The issue that this case presents involves the construction of several sections of the Election Code (10 ILCS 5/1 through 30 (West 2002)), and thus our review is de novo.
As the trial court astutely noted, the statutes pertaining to the issue at hand "are not a model of clarity." Thus, we will begin by setting forth ...