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Election 2012 Fri Mar 30 2012
by Caroline O'Donovan
The precinct captains, who had been preparing for election day for weeks, arrived at headquarters at 5:30am. A box of Dunkin Donuts, a campaign staple for liberals and conservatives, incumbents and challengers alike, was already waiting. Polls would open at 6 and not close for 13 hours; the day ahead would be long. Each captain was given a stack of door hangers, a list of addresses and a few volunteers while coffee brewed. The sole goal was to find as voters who had said they would support Will Guzzardi for state representative and ensure that they went to the polls.
To have informed the group of people assembled at Guzzardi headquarters that morning that voter turnout in the 39th District would be a record low this year would not have disheartened them. A low turnout rate could actually have been in their favor, because it meant that the machine operation of incumbent State Rep. Toni Berrios and her father Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios, was underperforming.
Tellingly, it was not with voters on the street who campaign workers had the most fraught interactions last Tuesday, but with election judges at the polls. From reluctantly reported voter lists to lost tape to delayed results, many of the individuals who were voting and campaigning in the 39th district last Tuesday pointed to gross mismanagement on behalf of the Board of Elections. This claim made the final count, with Berrios leading Guzzardi by 111 votes, suspect to a number of Guzzardi supporters. The slim margin is frustrating to volunteers, some of whom have found it difficult not to want to find a connection between the strangely unprofessional behavior of the election judges and a loss that was just too close.
The first step was to split each precinct into smaller chunks of turf. Martine Moore, a precinct captain, actress and former bookseller, covered the blocks bounded east to west by Kimball and Kedzie and north to south by Wrightwood and Belden. On Election Day, she was partnered with Elly Green, a dancer. In the early hours of the morning, as Logan Square residents were heading to the Blue Line, the team began the search for voters. Cheerfully they knocked on doors, talking to residents who assured them they would vote that afternoon, and leaving reminders for those who weren't home. On the sidewalks, they bumped into Berrios's precinct captains, wearing red Unite Here t-shirts, symbolizing their candidate's alliance with the hotel workers union. By the end of the day, Berrios's blue door hangers and Guzzardi's green door hangers would be stacked four deep on some of the neighborhood door knobs, and scattered liberally across vestibule floors.
After every door had been knocked, precinct captains would momentarily switch hats and become pollwatchers. Diane Back, Guzzardi's Election Day coordinator, had tried to prepare the volunteers for this responsibility, reminding them to be polite, to conceal all campaign materials within 100 feet of the polling area, and not to directly communicate with any voters. The pollwatcher should simply approach the election judge and request a list of names of individuals who had voted, copy the information down, and then start knocking on the same doors all over again. For every supporter who voted, they got to cross one name of the list, and move one name closer to victory.
So when Martine Moore entered the Christopher House polling location at Altgeld and Sawyer, with her campaign materials tucked away and her Guzzardi sticker out of sight, she expected to be in and out. Instead, she was greeted by a young woman wearing headphones and staring at the floor and another woman who, upon being asked for the list of voters, responded by asking where that list would be. When Martine pointed out that, as the election judge, it was she who would theoretically be the person with that information, the election judge responded, "I have no idea what I'm doing. I received no training." Then she went outside to smoke.
Moore did eventually receive the data she requested, although she did not see any follow through as per her request that they remove the Toni Berrios signs placed squarely inside the 100-foot No Electioneering zone. Later in the day, I spoke to a Guzzardi supporter who had been assigned the Christopher House polling location and said she had to wait half an hour to vote that morning. When the voter had pointed out to the election judges that the poll was supposed to have opened at 6, the judge responded, "We're setting up."
"I asked her, what if I had somewhere to be?" she said as we watched the same election judge yell at a passerby on a street corner across from the polling place where she was supposed to be working. "That's disenfranchisement. You're disenfranchising me."
When Moore went to collect her co-captain at the polling station at Fullerton and Kedzie, Elly Green was in tears. Told by the election judges that she could not have the voting data, Green began asking voters for their names; the judges had told her that, despite what the campaign had informed her, the job of a pollwatcher was to sit in the poll all day and collect data. Increasingly frustrated by her presence and apparently confused by the insistence of both Berrios and Guzzardi pollwatchers regarding their right to the voter listings, an election judge called in the Board of Election inspectors and officials from the State's Attorney's Office. Roundly refusing to speak to anyone on the phone or to consult the election law book, the three men repeatedly told Elly that she could not have the voter data. One, Nelson Perez, a Board of Elections supervisor, told her that her behavior had put her at risk of being arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. No voter lists were produced by the 25th precinct polling station that day.
Throughout their many hours knocking doors, volunteers on both sides found themselves asking, Where does the Board of Election Commissioners get these election judges? Judges are required only to pass a test on basic reading and math skills and election law. The Cook County Democratic and Republican Party chairmen each then provide lists of those eligible to the Cook County Board of Commissioners from which a precinct's judges are selected. So, in other words, the County Party, of which Joe Berrios is the head, has the power to select fully half of the people who work the polls in every district, including the one where Berrios' own daughter is running for State Rep. The selection system is provided a sheen of fairness in that it is mandatory that each polling place be staffed by at least one Republican and one Democrat, but in a place like Chicago, in which 263,350 of the people who voted were Democrats and only 47,505 were Republicans, there will always be contentious primary races in which Democrats challenge each other. It is worth questioning, then, whether allowing the most powerful Democrat in the state to select the individuals operating the polls is an ethical or democratic method of operation.
At the end of Election Day, pollwatchers are supposed to pick up tape, or the receipt from the machine that counts votes, with the official results. At the polling location where Green was nearly arrested, one of the election judges unplugged the machine before the receipt printed, and the results were temporarily lost. After an hour of waiting, all of the pollwatchers left empty handed. At the Altgeld and Sawyer polling location, Martine Moore waited for three hours for the tape because the election judges had somehow lost the key to the cabinet that held all of the tallying materials. While they searched, one election judge said, "Can I go home now?" and then proceeded to crawl out a window to have a cigarette. Eventually a replacement key was found and the tape was printed. When I asked Moore whether, after 12 hours of canvassing, she had won or lost her precinct, she said, "I don't know. I couldn't even look." The Berrios campaign worker who was assigned to the same polling place said on her way out, "I'm never, ever, ever canvassing for anyone ever again."
This kind of small, person-to-person interaction is what is supposed to get people excited about democracy. The core team of the Guzzardi campaign had thought about nothing but March 20 for months, and the precinct captains that volunteered for him had been through multiple training sessions with experienced campaign workers. The Board of Election supervisors on hand could not even be bothered to reckon with the law. Envisioning a line of voters on their way to work waiting to vote while an election judge threatens a pollwatcher makes it easier to understand why voter registration levels in the city are at an all time low.
By the time Guzzardi gave his speech at the end of the night, most volunteers were too tired to be that nervous about the results. When he started speaking, with 90 percent of the votes counted, the results were too close to call. By its end, with 97 percent counted, it was still too close. As Guzzardi thanked his family, a man in a camouflage shirt hoisting a Will Guzzardi - Democrat sign shouted "SEVENTY-TWO VOTES," the number separating Berrios and Guzzardi. Over the next day, much was made of the fact that the remaining precinct to be counted was in the 31st ward, Joe Berrios's home turf. While it was tempting for Guzzardi supporters to draw a connection between the precinct's jurisdiction and its long-delayed results, the plain truth is that of the 39th district's 31 precincts that lie in the 31st ward, Berrios won all but five of them. When the final precinct was released and her lead increased by over 30 votes, it was hardly a surprise.
Still, as tales like Moore's and Green's began to trickle in, it increasingly seemed that something unusual -- or perhaps all too usual -- took place at the polls. Sharon Meroni is the executive director of Defend the Vote, an independent watchdog organization that conducted a comprehensive audit of the Illinois Board of Election's process on Election Day in 2011. The BOE is technically required to audit 5 percent of its election materials annually, but Meroni says that these audits never include early or absentee voting and that, regardless, around 90 percent of all precincts will see some kind of protocol error on Election Day. None of this information is made accessible to the public, however, and Meroni herself blogs about how difficult it can be to reach any of the many authorities who are in theory responsible for ensuring a fair and accurate election.
The majority of states have a law by which election results this close would be automatically recounted. In Illinois, however, where voters are largely supposed to be happy with whatever marginal results they get, there is no such law. Because Guzzardi won 95 percent of the number of votes that Berrios won, he has the right to request a "discovery recount" from the State Supreme Court, in which he would choose to recount one quarter of the precincts in the 39th District in an attempt to establish sufficient evidence of inaccuracy or wrongdoing. At that point, the State Supreme Court would review the results of the discovery and determine whether a full recount could be conducted. Currently, Guzzardi is waiting for the full tallying of absentee ballots, but it is unlikely that more than 111 absentee ballots will come in for the 39th District in favor of Guzzardi.
The local news media has enjoyed the tense afterward to the campaign much more than it bothered with the substance. All but those closest to Guzzardi were shocked by how close the results were, with even NBC writing lines like, "Guzzardi is a 24-year-old, politically inexperienced blogger who just moved to Chicago two years ago. And he's nearly beating the daughter of the head of the most famous local political organization in America." Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader disparaged his own ability to predict election results, joking that it wasn't long ago that he told Guzzardi "he was gonna get his ass kicked."
Toni Berrios has issued no statement since Election Day, nor has she spoken to the press about the election at any point since Guzzardi declared his candidacy. One imagines, though, that somewhere in Belmont-Cragin, heads are bowed, nervously wondering how to reverse a trajectory that suggests a changing face of politics on the northwest side. As noted by the Chicago Reader just a few days before Election Day, the Berrios family may, in lieu of actually making reforms, take a stab at rebranding, by publicly joining with Mayor Emanuel in labeling themselves "progressives." Emanuel is known to be a master of media manipulation, but there is something inherently unnatural about Chicago politicians trying to be something they're not for the sake of reputation. At least trading a ham or a bottle of champagne for a vote is straightforward. Faux-reform violates Alex Kotlowitz's idea of Chicagoans as "people getting by, people with nothing to hide."
It will likely be weeks if not months before all votes are counted and recounted as necessary. It seems improbable, but not impossible, that the results will change; the last week has shown that the Guzzardi campaign is not a team that one is well advised to bet against. Whether his victory comes now or later, the work of building excitement for progressive, independent politics is done. Between this election and the next one, however, it might be wise for those excited by candidates like Guzzardi to work on improving the electoral process, particularly as it takes place on the actual Election Day.