Lessons for Democrats on Fixing Elections from Chicago

There is one mantra among all others that has driven electoral work in Chicago, by both Machine hacks and the occasional independent campaign seeking to unseat the machine: protect the vote.

In Chicago, the grift works like this. Black and Latino voters walk into their precinct, and are immediately challenged by Machine pollwatchers on the most trifling -­ and often illegal -­ pretexts, from lack of ID (not a legal requirement in Chicago) to manufactured improprieties in their registration. And that’s exactly what happened in Ohio where election hacks ID’d people based on race alone and colluded with judges to hand out ‘provisional’ ballots (the vast majority of which are never counted) like candy on Halloween to these voters.

How is this allowed to happen? Why, by controlling the judges in the polling places, who then blithely support the challenges of those pollwatchers. In Chicago’s wards, machine Democrats execute this by running both Democratic and Republican candidates for ward committeeman ­- an unpaid post whose holders have historically served as patronage bosses, but who also appoint all election judges in each ward for their respective parties. This strategy effectively allows the machine boss to ensure that the judges appointed to precincts from both parties are their peoplewho will follow the lead of their pollwatchers when voters are challenged. And that’s exactly what happened in Ohio, where Republican Party hacks tore a page from the Chicago Machine’s playbook and tightly controlled the dynamic inside the polling places, with predictable results.

What was the Kerry campaign’s response? Why; to concede the election, of course, despite their avowal to ensure that all the votes would be counted. This sure-lose strategy came on the heels of an abysmal failure on the part of the Kerry campaign, the Democratic Party and the Democratic Leadership Council to throw resources into voter registration and turnout projects, until Black leaders threw a series of fits in the closing weeks of the election and the party hacks relented -­ a day late and a dollar short.

To battle this Machine-style strategy, you need sharp pollwatchers inside the polling places who know both the rulebook -­ including what constitutes a justifiable versus a bogus challenge -­ plus how to document judges’ refusal to play fair, thereby laying down a paper trail to fight for the inclusion of contested or provisional ballots.

The same aggressive response is required when contending with the issue of ‘spoiled’ ballots, typically caused when a ballot will not correctly clear a counting machine because of a hanging chad or otherwise incorrectly punched ballot. In Chicago, ‘spoiling’ ballots is a pretty simple process. An unattended Machine pollwatcher simply goes from voting booth to voting booth and tampers with the punch templates, often by breaking off a pencil lead in the punch hole of the candidate you want to thwart, virtually ensuring that a punch will not clear the ballot.

Again, you combat these sorts of strategies by ensuring that you’ve got crack pollwatchers inside on the case, who understand that they have the right to physically view so-called ‘spoiled’ ballots — and fight for those ballots’ inclusion when they can be shown to reflect a voter’s intent, even when the punch tool has not completely cleared the punch slot in the ballot. You also need ace precinct workers outside, who can show voters how to check their own ballots to make sure that they are properly punched before they turn them back to the judges.

But these strategies can only succeed if those pollwatchers and precinct volunteers are working from plus counts -­ basically lists on poll sheets of canvassed voters -­ that are based on solid door-to-door interviews and scientific voter outreach in the neighborhoods. And it’s not enough to know who your plus voters are, and to fight for their right to cast regular ballots inside the polling places. You also need a party infrastructure that will fight both within the courts and election commissions and on the ground through the mobilization of popular expression to ensure that those votes are ultimately counted -­ and that the final election results are modified to reflect those votes.

Instead, the Kerry campaign threw in the towel before even a handful of those contested votes in those contested precincts could be counted.

It also bears noting that, despite the corporate spin about record turnout and a Bush majority, fully 45% of eligible voters in this country simply never made it to the polls, or in many cases DID and were turned away. Again, polls suggest that a majority of these voters hail from the Democratic Party’s core progressive constituencies -­ non-white and working class voters.

Harold Washington won two elections as Chicago’s first Black mayor because his supporters mounted an aggressive operation that sought to turn out -­ and protect -­ the vote. The result? People turned out in huge numbers, and their precinct volunteers protected those votes inside the polling places, in the courts…and on the streets. Instead, in this presidential election, we have a situation that much more closely mirrors the dynamic we saw during the Reagan years, when Reagan took office twice based on a voter ‘mandate’ that was actually based on votes from less than a third of the eligible electorate.

Yeah, the fix was in -­ and the Kerry campaign colluded in it.

CHRIS GEOVANIS belongs to Chicago Indymedia collective. She can be reached at ChrisGeovanis@aol.com


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Chris Geovanis is a Chicago media activist, advocacy journalist and member of the HammerHard MediaWorks collective. You can reach her via Twitter @heavyseas, via her Facebook page or at chrisgeovanis(at)gmail.com

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