By Jay Travis
I walked into my polling place on March 15 with a healthy dose of skepticism. Two years ago, when I made my first run for public office, that very same polling place turned me away because of “trouble with the machines.” We filed a complaint about the issue — one of more than 200 two years ago regarding numerous irregularities at 26th district polling places. Fortunately, I was able to return later that morning in 2014 and cast my vote — but it’s essentially impossible to say how many working people were turned away and unable to return to vote two years ago.
This time, as in 2014, I met a reporter at my polling place. We were also joined by a news photographer whose presence I hoped might encourage election judges to demonstrate propriety and transparency, at least in front of a camera. I was handed a ballot in a sleeve and entered a voting booth – and realized I’d been given a ballot for the wrong district, the Dunkin/Stratton race! Yet the judges insisted those were the only ballots they had in this split precinct and essentially sent me packing.
A half-hour later, as we were standing outside contacting election authorities, the judges ‘found’ the correct ballots. Yet an onsight election observer had been complaining about the incorrect ballots for over two hours before I arrived to vote — and again, there’s no telling how many people were given the wrong ballot for the wrong district and the wrong race.
We do know that this was not an isolated incident — and both my campaign and individual voters have filed dozens of formal complaints about incorrect ballots in precincts across the district. We also know these kinds of problems occurred all over the city. Roughly a third of Chicago’s precincts — and fully 40% in the 26th District — are “split”: that is, your address dictates which legislative districts you vote in, and not everyone in your precinct will vote in the same district or even ward.
So it should come as no surprise to election judges that this is an issue of which they must be cognizant. Yet the problem remains unresolved — and it fundamentally undermines our precious right to vote.
It’s been argued that chronic problems at polling places are driven by incompetence rather than willful acts to disenfranchise voters. But we know that in at least one precinct in the 26th District alone, experienced judges openly steered voters to particular candidates — a violation of election law — while judges across the district undermined transparency by refusing to allow credentialled pollwatchers to observe them running election results. The bottom line is both deeper and more simple: whether these sorts of incidents are driven by incompetence or intent, they are unacceptable.
Voters deserve better from the Chicago Board of Elections, and we must once and for all address the city’s appalling history of crooked elections and cooked results. People died for the right to elect the people who represent us, yet this fundamental right is under attack across the country, with political elites working in states from Florida to Texas to deny people the right to vote.
That includes right here in Chicago, where if I can’t even get the correct ballot, then I can’t have that most fundamental say in who represents me. Getting the wrong ballot is just as bad as getting no ballot, or seeing that ballot go uncounted — or being turned away at the polls — because in each of these scenarios people are being denied the right to elect their representation.
There’s no telling — yet — how the more than 80 irregularities we identified in the 26th District on March 15 might have impacted my race, or for that matter, other hotly contested races across the city. I can say with certainty that we grew our base of support by an incredible 150% — to more than 11,300 voters who were not misled by the incumbent’s relentless and unfounded smear campaign, bank-rolled by allies of Bruce Rauner and Rahm Emanuel. These voters chose instead to vote for a platform built on a commitment to the retirement security of our seniors, quality neighborhood public schools for our kids, and accountability to working families. That’s a powerful testament to committed, issues-based grassroots organizing that lives well beyond election day.
Yet as activists, organizers and engaged residents, we must add a critical issue to our list of concerns: fair and transparent elections — and the right of every registered voter to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice.