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Saturday, July 20

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I got an email recently from a friend requesting information about an election tactic she'd heard of called "ballot management," which the Regular Democratic Organization uses to ensure their candidate gets in. It does indeed exist, I told her, and is just one of many methods. It struck me that although it is well known that the so-called "Machine" (better described simply as the Regulars) is still remarkably capable in municipal and state-wide elections, the details are obscured by myths, folklore, and misconceptions. Thus this public service announcement.

The Chicago precinct captain organization has been considerably weakened over the last 10 to 15 years, ironically under the watch of one of the most powerful and resilient municipal politicians in American history. In certain wards, especially the gentrifying wards along the lakefront and near northwest areas of Ukranian Village, Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square, and at many precincts throughout the city, gone are the surly, snarling captains hauling in voters, and his minions forcing palm cards on dutiful voters.

They are down, but they are not out. Some areas still have organizations capable of bullying and cajoling voters into picking the right man (or woman). But the power of the Regular Democratic Organization is much more sophisticated than this old notion of precinct organizations and city workers canvassing neighborhoods. The Regulars can kill candidacies long before they can have any effect at the polls:

March, 1999: After a 12-year campaign, Richard M. Daley, Mayor, succeeds in implementing his non-partisan primary election scheme. The idea is to make sure a mayoral candidate has to get 50 percent plus one of the vote, since for years all one needed was a plurality in the Democratic primary to basically ensure a win. A blow for and against democracy. Although the non-partisan primary ensures that a candidate must be the choice of 50 percent-plus-one of the population, it also functionally pulled the teeth of ethnic/racial groups, since a competitive white candidate wouldn't risk splitting the vote and handing the election to a minority candidate, since a victory in the Democratic Primary is more or less a victory in the general election. You'll notice that aldermanic and mayoral campaign signs never have the words "Democrat" or "Democratic" on them. They also never say "Republican," but that's for a different reason. The non-partisan primary is a huge benefit to the Mayor, but less so the individual aldermen. If an opponent can force a run-off, this is usually a bad sign for the incumbent as it signals a weakness of organization and emboldens complacent voters who generally avoid rubberstamp municipal elections. It can also be a boon to fundraising for an opponent, who often have trouble getting contributions since upset victories are so rare. Only through the beneficence of the Regular Organization -- giving fund transfers from their untouched warchests and providing now-latent campaign workers -- can the incumbent hope to hold on. If the opposition has forced a run-off, they may not be willing to waste their money.

In 2003, after Manuel "Manny" Flores forced a run-off against Jesse Granato on February 25th, he saw in the area of $46,000 pour into Friends of Manny Flores in the mere month before the general election.

So how many hurdles are there on the way to a successful candidacy?

Six Months Out: Opposition candidate files his or her "statement of organization." This is what you have to do to create a political committee -- all those groups with names like, "Friends of Ed Kelly," or "Committee to Elect Ted Matlak" or whatever. Since this is filed either as a state, local, or state/local committee, the Chicago Board of Elections is made aware of it. The statement of organization cannot be filed until at least $3,000 has been raised by a candidate, and it must be filed within 10 days of reaching that mark. If a candidate has raised $3,000+ pretty early in the cycle, they could be viable -- and it isn't rare for the incumbent to get wind of a competitor and those who funded him.

Five Months Out: Local businesses are precluded. This is a pretty obvious tactic. If there seems to be a viable opponent, the Regulars can swing into action quickly, using their incumbency and stored funds to canvass the businesses in a given election district (whether ward or state rep or state senate) and request donations. This precludes them, rationally, from giving to the opponent. Often businesses will be visited in person and the opponent mentioned by name as being off-limits. Because so many aldermanic, committeeman, and state rep races go unopposed -- but fundraising never stops -- incumbents often have a huge warchest and can start early in drying up the donor base. The same is often done with the union locals, only more insidiously; because so many of the locals depend on city business, the request not to donate to an opponent can carry an implied threat.

Four Months Out: Ballot Management, and its uglier cousin, knifing. This is especially effective when the Regulars are trying to get their judges in office, but it works in tight state rep and senator races, in Commissioner elections, and other locally-focused contests. If the Regulars are looking at getting a man into office (often a man with an ethnic-specific name), and a female challenger shows up, they'll slate two or three more women with similar ethnic names and fund them and provide volunteers. The thinking is, the casual voters will look at the list of judges and if they're likely to vote for an Irish woman, they'll end up splitting their votes among two or three of them, letting their guy go through unscathed. On the other side of the coin, if they're trying to get a woman through, they'll fund and even endorse a man with an ethnic-specific name in order to give an edge the more anglicized-name female.

This latter version, where a strong endorsement is involved, is called "knifing." It happens every cycle: A candidate for judge or commissioner or whatever it is will be given an endorsement, some money and a handful of volunteers. They'll put "Cook County Endorsed!" on their campaign literature and on billboards, only to find that when it comes down to the wire, their opponent -- who is also endorsed -- starts getting all the money, all the support and their name on ballot cards across the city. The poor sap who thought they were the Regulars' preferred candidate comes to realize all their campaigning was just a ploy to slip another candidate through.

In 2002 in the 6th State Rep District, the Regulars went after an open, re-districted seat by slating the daughter of a black pro-Daley precinct captain (one of the only such captains in the entire city in the 1989 campaign) with an Irish name -- Bailey -- in order to preclude a viable independent challenger, April Troope. The sixth district stretched into Bridgeport but was mainly in predominately black areas. They also funded a few candidates with African-American sounding names in order to split that vote; Bridgeport went strong for Bailey, obviously, and she carried the election by nearly 1,000 votes out of 14,000 or so cast -- with six candidates in the running.

The power of ballot management in low-profile, low-turnout local races is enough to effectively kill a candidacy early on. But we continue:

Three Months Out: Petitions. This is the Regulars' bread and butter. In state races, an opposition candidate cannot begin collecting signatures until 90 days before the election, giving them only three months to get what is often 3 precent of the total number of voters in the last election. In a state rep or aldermanic race this can be quite an affair, since the only signatures that count are those of residents of that district. How many people know what ward they live in, much less what state rep district they live in? Many people don't, and hanging out outside of a grocery store or library or university is a pretty inefficient, laborious way to try and get the three hundred to 1,000 passable signatures. Unless, that is, you have an army of volunteers. Not only this, but the Board of Elections has very strict guidelines on what can pass as a valid signature, and are pretty much free to throw out any signature that isn't perfect.

(Please keep in mind that this entire time, the opposition candidate is finding every business owner and potential donor is telling them they already gave to the other guy. Funds are running low and the incumbent just got a $5,500 transfer from, oh, "The Chicagoland Plumbers Committee To Elect Richard M. Daley" in order to print 1,000 more lawn signs and hire a full-time canvasser.)

One to Two Months Out: It is around now that campaign literature really starts stuffing mailboxes and apartment building lobbies alleging -- perhaps not lies, but misleading facts about the challenger (or, in certain cases, an incumbent who has fallen out of favor). For example, if the candidate is running in a predominately black area, negative literature about him will circulate depicting a white person -- or a group of people, few or none of which are black -- saying nowhere that this is the person running, but implying it nevertheless. In white ethnic wards, the opposite may occur. Xeroxed letters to residents from anonymous precinct captains will detail some-or-other probably fictitious malaprop or illicit activity of the challenger. When such literature hits early, it becomes almost impossible for the challenger to use volunteers to do persuasion canvassing, going door to door to educate voters about their candidate; the preconceived notion of the guy will effect the way voters hear the name.

Two Weeks Out: The Sign Wars. This is one of my favorite parts of the election cycle. It is at this point that ward organizations become important, because everything -- trees, lawns, windows, businesses -- become covered in signs for the incumbent or endorsed candidate. What's more, individuals and businesses foolish enough to put up signs for the opposition will be gently cajoled into taking the signs down, and perhaps even replacing them with signs for the endorsed candidate. And wave bye-bye to the thousands of dollars spent on signs put in public places, since they can all be ripped down overnight, forcing the opposition campaign to re-dedicate resources to buying and putting up signage all over the district.

One Week Out: The incumbents who are unopposed or facing non-viable opposition may get polite suggestions from the Central Committee of the Cook County Democratic Party to transfer funds to more threatened candidates. So if you've survived fundraising drying up, the ballot being split up, your petitions being challenged, your name tarnished by misleading literature and all or most of your signs being torn down and destroyed and you are still in a good way, you've now got to face an opponent getting tens of thousands of dollars in free money to print more signs, do more mailings, hire full-time canvassers, rent out billboards, and God knows what else. The beauty of the Regulars is that fundraising -- almost universally through the committeeman's office -- never stops, and giving a small donation is practically customary for every small business moving into a neighborhood, big developer moving into an area, new lawyer beginning to practice and on and on. In tandem with the fact that real challengers are rare, this creates in essence an enormous slush fund for the Party that allows them to shift money around with impunity and aid even a relatively unpopular, poorly-backed incumbent.

Election Day: More misdirection -- and so much more. The orgy of activity on election day -- actually, often starting at 10pm the night before -- boggles the mind of those not familiar with Chicago politics, once called "the Superbowl of politics" by Rev. Jesse Jackson. The night before, canvassers -- some paid, but mostly precinct captains, campaign volunteers, and city workers -- confetti a district. Door hangers remind voters in "safe" precincts to get out and vote, and who to vote for, often with the address of the polling place clearly printed. In precincts where the incumbent found penetration difficult or voters resistant to signage or literature, it is not unheard-of for door hangers to indicate incorrect poll times -- saying they open and close later than they do -- and incorrect polling places. They may also list an incorrect slate of candidates, perhaps for a nearby neighboring ward or district. The assumption here is that the voter is so dumb, they'll get in the polling place with their handy list, find none of the names on there, and so vote for the name they recognize -- probably the incumbent, since they just saw 20 signs for him or her outside the polling place.

The other aspect of misdirection occurs at the polling place. One favorite tactic is drawing a misleading connection between candidates. For example, a palm card will list one very popular candidate (say, Paul Vallas or Paul Simon or whoever) at the top, with a series of candidates supposedly affiliated with them below, with the endorsed Regular candidate nestled in there safely, despite the fact that his committee paid for the card. This will also go on on the door hangers and literature drops, where a series of candidates will be listed implying that the more well-known, well-liked candidate paid for the thing, and thus is implicitly endorsing the lesser-known (and lesser-liked) Regular candidate.

For state-wide or federal elections, precinct captains and volunteers focused on a local campaign may be instructed to "kill" a candidate on the street -- often in return for a fund transfer, endorsement, or just to curry favor. This means while going about their regular business of pulling people out of their homes to vote, dropping misleading literature, planting signs all over the place and confusing unfriendly-looking voters, they will also tear down all the signs of the targeted candidate, bully their volunteers (who often are volunteer staff not tied directly into the municipal political mechanism and therefore more timid and less familiar with how things work), and tell blatant lies about them to voters headed into the poling place ("Don't vote for him, he killed a kid drunk driving!") A statewide or federal candidate with a very sophisticated volunteer organization not based out of the city can be "killed" very easily.

The Regulars may also misdirect the oppositions volunteers, who are probably not as experienced. They will, for example, insist on seeing "polling place permits" from poll watchers, which is akin to high school seniors selling freshman "elevator passes." Polling place permits don't exist; you do need credentials to enter the polling place, but not to stand outside. Still, the Regulars will try and shoo away volunteers without a "permit." They will also crowd the sidewalk to force volunteers to stand further away. They'll steal literature right out of a volunteer's hand and throw it away or hide it, forcing the volunteer to head back to campaign HQ to get more and waste crucial time.

In this election cycle, I saw cops shooing people away from a polling place at 4pm, saying it was closed.

Often, Regular election-day workers will be from completely different parts of the city, where the election result is a foregone conclusion. To this end, they may be provided with lists from various city departments (though not, strictly speaking, necessarily provided by that department) of city employees in that district. And if things aren't looking good, they'll call through their list (a new tactic in the era of the cell phone) and order these people to come out and vote.

Female campaign workers are often sent into publicly-funded senior homes, especially in places like Rogers Park, Uptown, and the Northwest Side, to knock on doors and kindly remind elderly voters -- "The candidate was here just a few weeks ago. He brought those candies, remember? Well, it doesn't look good and he really needs your vote. I'll wait while you put on shoes." Campaign workers from rival campaigns might find it difficult to gain admittance to such buildings, which often have a secure entrance. In a low-turnout election, a few buildings with 20 to 50 residences can mean a lot.

Campaign workers will go out in several shifts during the day to do repeat literature drops and door-knocking, often removing literature from the opposition. They'll also be asked to do things like drive around in vans blaring a recording urging voters to pick their candidate, of course nestled within a series of different names.

Just to be clear, not all incumbents should be indicted for these wacky goings-on, nor should the Cook County Democratic Party be viewed as some despotic, uncontrollable Stalinist force. The tactics are impressive, sure, and the odds almost insurmountable -- but they are not illegal, and they are not universal. More often than not, incumbent aldermen, state reps, commissioners and other officials hang on simply because they are well-liked and do a good job.

For all the talk of the "Machine" and the election-day hijinks, what happens on election day -- although impressive -- would mean little without the tendrils the Regulars can mobilize before anybody is even considering the election.

Given all of those obstacles, a handful of burly Streets and Sanitation workers are kittens.

GB store


Dan Johnson-Weinberger / May 26, 2004 11:08 PM

Except, of course, lots of voters resent the heavy-handed patronage organizations and the often sub-par candidates they often support. The way to beat the Organization is the mimic the Organization. That's why we did with Rey Colon in the 35th ward in February of 03, and with Manny Flores in the 1st ward in April of 03. I say 'we' because I was a volunteer precinct captain for both of those campaigns. So if you know what the bad guys are up to, you can save a precinct as just one volunteer who isn't afraid to stand up to some would-be bully for the Organization. Don't just analyze. Work for the good guys. (That's as close to a rhyme as I could get.)

Jeff Trigg / May 29, 2004 3:28 PM

" In state races, an opposition candidate cannot begin collecting signatures until 90 days before the election, giving them only three months to get what is often 3 precent of the total number of voters in the last election."

Actually, petitioning begins 6 months prior to the primary and they are due at the three month mark. The average # of sigs is also very rarely more than 1% for machine parties.

A great read otherwise and very insightful.

Ramsin / May 29, 2004 7:40 PM

Jeff- Thanks for the assist. The 90 days prior is from the last day to file petitions, not 90 days prior to the election:

"Petition sheets must not be circulated more than 90 days preceding the last day for filing petitions." p. 4, 2004 candidate guide.

Sorry for the mix-up, folks. And usually it is 1%, except in federal house races where it is 0.5%.


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