A Challenging Election

Mary Russell Gardner (far right) and her daughters, Charmaine and Constemecka, sit on the porch of the home they've lived in for almost two decades. Both daughters are active voters but were challenged in last year's canvass. (Photo by E.J. Rublev)

Mary Russell Gardner (far right) and her daughters, Charmaine and Constemecka, sit on the porch of the home they've lived in for almost two decades. Both daughters are active voters but were challenged in last year's canvass. (Photo by E.J. Rublev)

Mary Russell Gardner and her family have lived in the same west Austin house, in the 47th precinct of the 29th Ward, since 1985. Bounded by Ohio and Lake streets, the precinct stretches across nine blocks where kids play amid tall trees and well-kept grass islands. Many of the neighborhood’s families have lived in their stately wood and brick homes for 20 or 30 years. Most know their next-door neighbors and people who live down the street.

Gardner and her children are active voters, but, last year, after a walking canvass that began in August and spanned the city, the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago challenged the voting status of two of Gardner’s daughters, Constemecka and Charmaine. The six-week canvass dispatched dozens of election judges throughout the city to confirm voters’ addresses in each of Chicago’s 2,709 precincts. Officials said it would result in a more accurate, more up-to-date list of Chicago voters.

But the thousands whom judges couldn’t find and whose status was wrongly challenged, will have to produce two forms of identification for election judges and sign affidavits in order to vote. Those who can’t provide the identification must vote with provisional ballots, few of which got counted in the city’s last election.

To Gardner and others like her with their eyes on the November election, the requirements represent more hurdles for people all too familiar with disenfranchisement.

“This is crazy,” said Gardner, who is black. Both of her daughters live at home, she said, and city records show they have voted in every election, general and primary, for at least a decade.

“No one in this family forgets to vote—we always vote. They’ve never missed one,” she said.

Gardner’s daughters have lots of company. As a result of the canvass, more residents were challenged in their precinct than in any other without homeless shelters or public housing.

In fact, as with past walking canvasses, last year’s hit Chicago’s largest group of voters—African Americans—the hardest.

Half the 207,039 people challenged citywide lived in majority African American wards like the West Side’s 29th. One of every six voters in black wards was challenged, but, in majority Latino, white and mixed wards, about one voter out of every 10 was challenged.

Elections board officials say the importance of the process outweighs such results. “If canvasses were not conducted, the number of registered voters in the City of Chicago in a few years would outnumber the number of residents and would be rife with duplicates, people who have died, etc.,” Executive Director Lance Gough wrote in a statement to The Chicago Reporter.

“This would provide more opportunities for ‘unscrupulous’ people to use those names to commit voter fraud,” Gough wrote.

The election board conducts frequent mail canvasses. To capture the voters those canvasses miss, the board sends “judges,” who are recruited from election judge rolls, out to walk the city’s wards every few years. Paid $35 per precinct, they were instructed to knock on doors, check with building managers and look at leases, returning several times, if necessary, to find out whether voters live where they say they do on their registration cards.

By law, they can’t remove from the rolls any voters they’re unable to find—such people are deemed “inactive,” and may stay that way forever if they never respond to postcards or try to vote.

“As with the mail-canvass, the door-to-door canvass admittedly is not a perfect system,” Gough wrote. “If an error is made, there is a safety net. –¦ No person should lose his or her vote because of the minute number of errors made in the canvass.”

But the Reporter’s analysis shows that last year’s canvass resulted in numerous errors: Many black ward residents were challenged without cause, others who should have been challenged were missed and still more voted normally after election judges failed to tell them they had been challenged. One alderman insists the elections board never canvassed his ward at all. Hundreds of homeless people were deemed no longer registered to vote despite a federal law that protects them. And at least a thousand residents of public housing were wrongly challenged.

Elections board officials can’t explain the canvass’ results or its mistakes—even as a national spotlight shines on black voters because of their widely reported disenfranchisement in the 2000 presidential elections.

There are a variety of theories. Gough and some black aldermen say more black voters were challenged because they move around more, though a Reporter analysis of census figures shows the opposite. Others believe judges in black areas are more apt to be incompetent or perhaps untrained. Experts say political organizations in black wards aren’t well organized and don’t alert the elections board when their residents move or die, increasing the number of people the canvass picks off the rolls. Whatever the cause, black leaders say African Americans feel their votes are unprotected.

In the March primary, 13,424 voters in majority black wards who were incorrectly challenged took the extra steps at the polls to restore their voting status, compared with 3,745 voters in majority white wards and 2,006 in majority Latino wards. Those who did not have enough identification either had to go home to get it or used provisional ballots.

Even then, their votes were at risk: In the March primary, widespread problems with Chicago’s provisional ballot system were reported nationwide when mistakes by election judges caused just 7 percent of the nearly 6,000 provisional ballots cast to be counted.

“The pattern is too pronounced for us to find excuses as an acceptable reason to dismiss this,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. “We all deserve equal protection and equal access to voting.”

What Jackson sees as a dangerous pattern—the canvass’ heavy effect on black wards—Gough sees as an unfortunate but realistic side effect.

Alderman Isaac Carothers, who lives down the street from the Gardners, agreed. One in four voters in Carothers’ 29th Ward was challenged, totaling 7,768 voters—the highest number citywide.

“You’d have to know the black experience in order to understand,” said Carothers, who is African American. “The white community has more opportunity to buy homes. It’s easier for them to get the mortgage. –¦ African Americans have not had the opportunity. They can’t stay in one place as much.”

But Chicago’s 2000 census data show that 56 percent of all African Americans lived in the same home for more than five years, while only 44 percent of whites did the same.

“I don’t think [the canvass] has any real repercussions. The process allows for restoration,” said Carothers.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Vote Fraud Division was not aware of the canvass and didn’t receive any complaints about it, said Mary Bucaro, a division spokeswoman. But some officials remain concerned.

“I’ve seen election after election, I was out at the polling place, and there were people I know have lived here 30 or 40 years and got challenged,” said Michael D. Chandler, alderman and committeeman of the 24th Ward, which had the second-highest number of challenged voters.

“They’re disenfranchising people. –¦ Everyone coming in [to the polling places] might not say, ‘Okay, I have to go home to get ID.’ So we’re losing all those votes.”

Of the 7,600 voters who were challenged in Chandler’s ward, 879 restored their voting status at the polls in the March primary. “That tells you that whatever method they’re using isn’t working,” Chandler said.

And when Carothers found out that his ward had the highest number of restored voters—1,151—even he acknowledged the problems.

“Well, then it goes back to the process with the board,” he said. “I don’t know why the people were challenged if they were still there.”

Alderman Isaac Carothers talks to a constituent about registering to vote in his 29th ward, where officials challenged the status of one of every four registered voters last summer. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Black ward organizations have long been blamed for not attending to their voting rolls. In 1995, a Reporter investigation documented grossly inflated, inaccurate and misleading voting rolls in black wards. The next year, the walking canvass knocked 250,000 people off active voter rolls citywide, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Soon after, the paper analyzed the canvass results and found that half of those challenged lived in black wards, but Latino and northern lakefront wards lost the largest share of their voters.

By 2000 the inaccuracies in the city’s voter rolls were back. Again, the rolls in black wards were massively distorted: In the 21st Ward, for example, 96 percent of people 18 and older were registered to vote—a number of “fantastic heights,” according to Paul Kleppner, director of the Office for Social Policy Research at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

“That doesn’t occur in the real world,” he said.

Altogether, 84 percent of the voting age popoulation in black wards was registered to vote, compared with white wards’ 68 percent and about 53 percent in Latino and mixed wards.

Of the city’s 10 wards with the highest voter registration rates, ranging from 86 to 95 percent, only one, the 19th, wasn’t black.

“The political operatives in black areas do not show much concern for accuracy. This ultimately causes people to become disenchanted and disenfranchised,” said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, the former long-time 29th Ward committeeman who was unseated by Carothers in 1998.

In a May 1999 story, the Reporter found that white wards have powerful, fine-tuned organizations but, with a few notable exceptions, African American and Latino wards have younger, weaker and less-disciplined party structures.

Canvasses are important for keeping the rolls clean, because, when they are inflated, it looks like committeemen are not doing their job, said Carothers. More involvement from committeemen, he argued, would prevent errors. “Certainly there’s a downside to the canvass.”

Chandler said his own workers occasionally canvass his West Side ward and send the elections board lists of people to remove from the rolls, but many times he doesn’t see the changes made. In the end, the errors can skew voter turnout rates, he said.

“The big deal is competition,” he said. “I want my ward to be the best, No. 1. That’s how it goes. I want the highest turnout. Every committeeman should want a high turnout.”

Among the wards with the fewest voters challenged was the predominantly white 41st on the North Side; no more than 10 voters were challenged in several of its precincts. Alderman Brian G. Doherty said he wasn’t surprised.

“I would be more concerned if I saw 50 people knocked off or something,” he said. Doherty chalks up the numbers to his “old-style,” stable ward organization.

Nearly 500 precincts citywide had 10 or fewer voters challenged—an impossibly low number that prompted the board to recanvass the precincts, said Tom Leach, elections board spokesman. Yet the board could not provide evidence of the recanvassing.

At a recent meeting, elections board Executive Director Lance Gough (center) answers commissioners’ questions about the upcoming elections as board spokesman Tom Leach looks on. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

In preparation for the summer 2003 walking canvass, the board sent letters to all its former election judges—many of whom are recommended to the board by ward committemen—asking them to be canvass judges, Gough said. Judges could ask to be assigned to specific precincts, and most of the time the board sent them where they wanted to go.

“We beg for judges,” said Gough.

About 1,300 judges took Gough up on his offer. In pairs, they took to the streets with long lists of voters and their addresses. Leach said judges knocked on doors, checked with building managers, talked to neighbors and looked at leases to confirm those addresses. If no one answered the door after repeated attempts, there was no name on the bell, and there were no neighbors confirming where a person lived, those voters were put in the challenged category, Leach said.

The elections board sent a card notifying each challenged person, who would have to mail it back to keep their registration status active.

The process was more thorough until the early 1980s because precinct captains who knew their neighbors helped canvass judges, Carothers said. That system was discarded because critics said politicians were too involved, he said.

“The judges are paid to go out there and they say they want to do a good job, but they don’t know the community,” Carothers said of the current system. “People are doing it because they want money.”

Elections board records show that several judges earned more than $1,000 each by canvassing at least 29 precincts. That would mean they canvassed a precinct a day for the entire six weeks, excluding weekends. On average, there are 334 registered voters in each city precinct.

Martha McClendon, a 59-year-old resident of the mainly black 28th Ward, served as a canvass judge and said it took her two weeks to canvass two precincts alone. “I wish I didn’t have to say it, but I do. Most [judges] don’t care,” McClendon said. “They think of it as something to make money.”

McClendon earned $70. Though the elections officials said they directed judges to work in pairs, McClendon, a Democrat, said she was told a Republican judge would canvass alone after her. She did most of her canvassing by herself and was scared to go into some high-rises where there was gang activity. “I’ll never do this again,” she said.

As an election judge for 20 years, McClendon said she’s seen many homeowners who have lived in the same place for decades show up at the polls and then have another judge tell them they’re challenged.

In her ward, one out of five voters—totaling 7,438 people—was challenged. Her alderman, Ed Smith, said he believes most were challenged correctly, and he wasn’t concerned about the results. But McClendon was.

She didn’t buy the argument that she and other African Americans move around more than other groups.

She also said it took two years for her to get her deceased husband off the rolls. Every election she’d go to the polls and tell the judges to remove him. “I would even tell them how to take him off,” she said.

Such mistakes by judges were evident in the March primary. Election judges bungled paperwork and procedure, invalidating thousands of votes, said Tracey Smith, executive director of the League of Women Voters, who visited and studied polling places across the city on Election Day.

In a July elections board meeting open to the public, Tracey Smith told commissioners that the instruction materials given to election judges are unclear, and they may have led to some of the mistakes.

During that meeting, Elections Board Chairman Langdon D. Neal told Smith that his board can’t be held responsible. “We can’t be educators for those who don’t have critical thinking skills,” he said.

“The problem is not the instruction. The problem is the judges,” Theresa M. Petrone, an elections board commissioner and its secretary, agreed.

Peter Zelchenko, political activist and former aide for State Rep. Cynthia Soto, a Democrat from the West Side, visited polling places on Election Day in March with Smith.

“When we got to the South Side, it was just insane,” he said. “Very often the judges were under qualified and under trained. They didn’t know what to do.”

Canvass judges didn’t “walk door-to-door” in the 24th Ward, said Chandler.

“And I’m alderman and committeeman, so I would know,” he said.

Elections board officials declined to comment.

George Jones, age 68, has lived on the 5900 block of west Race Street since 1971, and has been block club president there for about 15 years. He knows nearly everyone on the block.

Wearing two John Kerry buttons—one on his shirt and one on his Illinois baseball cap—Jones looked over a list of challenged voters who had addresses on his street. He ran his finger down the names and peered through his big glasses, saying, “They still live here–¦they live here–¦they live here –¦” interspersed with a few “yes, they’ve moved, they should be on there–¦they’ve moved–¦” According to Jones, about a third of the people on the list shouldn’t have been challenged.

Jones said he hadn’t had his registration challenged since Harold Washington was running for mayor in 1983. Black voters overwhelmingly supported Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, and many white Chicagoans were stunned by the massive voter registration drive in black wards that propelled him into office. “They didn’t want black people to vote then,” Jones said.

Other neighbors noted that not everyone chooses to come to the front door when they hear someone knocking. That shouldn’t deter judges, said Smith of the League of Women Voters.

“The Board of elections has this attitude, ‘We looked for you, we couldn’t find you, we’ve done our job,'” she said. “But they have a responsibility to enfranchise. This is about helping people vote.”

On nearby Midway Parkway, Bonnie Thompson sat on her porch while two of her grandchildren chased their dog and her husband napped in a nearby chair. Thompson’s daughter, Makisha, and granddaughter, Vanita, were on the list of challenged voters. But the family has lived in their house since 1970, and Thompson said she’s been registered to vote all that time.

“They live here,” Thompson said, firmly. “I sure hope they did n’t knock me off. I want to vote.”

None of the few dozen people the Reporter spoke with in the 29th Ward’s 47th Precinct had heard anything about last year’s canvass or remembered talking to anyone who said they were doing one. They were all startled and concerned when told they or their family members had been challenged.

Charles Murray, who lives in a parsonage on the 5800 block of West Race Street, is the pastor of the nearby Resurrection United Methodist Church. “This is intentional. Everyone knows it,” Murray said flatly of the canvass results. “But we need to be responsible for being counted. If we don’t get counted, we don’t get pieces of the pie, or a piece of the pie as large as we deserve.”

Both Charmaine and Constemecka Gardner were out stumping for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama on primary day in March. Like others in the neighborhood, both sisters voted normally in that election and weren’t told they had been challenged. “What good is it, then?” Constemecka Gardner asked. “What’s [29th Ward Alderman Carothers] going to do about it?”

Carothers said he didn’t know his ward had the most challenged voters, and was surprised, because it’s mainly made up of single-family houses. He said people who have moved out of his ward come back to vote there, to avoid the hassle of re-registering. That may be why 1,151 voters in his ward took steps to restore their voting status in the March primary, Carothers said. Ultimately, he blamed the mistakes on the elections board’s canvassing methods.

“Everyone passes the buck,” Constemecka Gardner later responded.

But some advocates agree that the canvass methods put voters in other poor and largely African American areas at a disadvantage.

It’s not unusual for poor people in one home to have different last names, but only one name on their lease and their door, said Terry Williams, a League of Women Voters board member. If only one name is listed, the registrations of extended family members might be challenged. Judges may take the next step to question the neighbors, who could be reluctant to answer questions, she said.

Judges also went door-to-door in public housing buildings and confirmed their findings with the Chicago Housing Authority, which is in the fourth year of its Plan for Transformation. As part of the plan, the agency has demolished dozens of buildings and, as they came down, sent the elections board lists of former residents, Gough said. As a result, the voter registrations of at least 1,363 public housing residents were challenged. The five precincts with the highest rates of challenged voters in the city—where between 77 and 93 percent of registered voters were challenged—were home to public housing high-rises in the Robert Taylor Homes or Stateway Gardens developments.

But, despite the board’s precautions, mistakes were made: Residents from two CHA buildings at 4429 and 5135 S. Federal St. were challenged incorrectly.

Barbara Moore, vice president of the 5135 S. Federal St. Local Advisory Council, had not moved but was challenged, along with about a third of her fellow building residents. But Moore doesn’t remember speaking with a canvass worker or receiving a card in the mail informing her of her new status, and she doesn’t remember any resident of her building saying anything about it. Moore did vote normally in the March primary, however.

The canvass’ mistakes were starker for homeless people. Hundreds who had registered to vote as residents at local shelters were challenged. At the South Loop’s Pacific Garden Mission, the largest homeless shelter for men in the city, 846 voters were challenged. Ed Shurna, executive director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the elections board may have broken the law by removing homeless voters from active rolls when judges didn’t find them in the space of a few days. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 protects the homeless’ right to vote by specifying that each person need only live at the address he registers by for one day a year. Gough said elections board investigators visited shelters several times.

“This is scary,” Shurna said. “As far as I can tell, this is illegal. They weren’t there when the canvassers came by, so they can’t vote.”

Gough stressed that challenged voters are not removed from the rolls, only required to produce additional identification or complete provisional ballots on Election Day.

“Let’s be clear here,” he said. “No one is losing their right to vote.”

Many of the homeless people at Pacific Gardens said they were eager to register or confirmed that they carry their voter registration cards. Shurna said many homeless people use voter registration cards as their only form of identification, making it impossible to confirm their address any other way and preventing them from voting if they had been challenged. Gough disagreed.

“There’s a lot of IDs that homeless have,” he said.

Ricky Nelson, a homeless man who often has a free lunch at Pacific Garden, said he recently registered but he had yet to receive his card. Nelson said he plans to use the card as his only identification and in order to vote.

“They’re saying we’re nobody. We’re citizens too,” Nelson said. “We all want equal rights.”

But the Rev. Jackson said the flawed process has more serious consequences.

While the mistakes are tolerated and officials squabble, apathy among all black voters grows, he said.

“There’s a sense that their vote doesn’t count. We have to constantly tell them that they matter,” Jackson said. “We all deserve equal protection under the law.”

Brandi M. Green, Dana Keith and Jessica Young helped research this article.

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