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Election judges LEAP in to clean up Chicago vote fraud

Until recently, Chicago has had a dismal record for clean elections. LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts) has been instrumental in eliminating fraudulent election activity. The project serves as a model for cities with similar problems.

"ELECTIONS are bought with money, with whiskey, with free lunches," English journalist William Snead said about Chicago elections when he visited the city in 1893. Chicago politicians bragged that they could buy votes for 50 cents in the 1890's, and later complained when the price was inflated to one and then two dollars. A look through the March and November newspaper headlines during the 1920's and 1930's reveals arrests for multiple voting, gunpoint advice on voting, ballot boxes dumped into the Chicago River, and even shootings at the polling places. Many think that Chicago vote fraud in the 1960 presidential election swung Illinois to John F. Kennedy. As recently as 1974, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office logged about 2,000 complaints of vote fraud.

But if Chicago has a long tradition of shady election practices, it also has a long tradition of reform. Chicago election reform got a big shot in the arm in 1971 when Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts) was formed to clean up elections. A Chicago-based, nonpartisan, anti-vote fraud watchdog organization, LEAP is funded by private organizations, corporations, grants, private individuals and fund raisings. LEAP has been so successful in Chicago that election officials in East St. Louis and Washington, D.C., have called on it to assist in election reform.

"The need for Project LEAP occured because the two-party system was all but dead in Chicago," said Project LEAP Chairman Thomas F. Roeser, who is a former assistant secretary of commerce. Roeser is now vice president of government relations for Quaker Oats in Chicago. "Under the law, each precinct should have Republican and Democratic election judges," continued Roeser, "but what happened was that the Republican party capsized in Chicago and became for all practical purposes a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic party meaning Republican election judges were in most cases appointed by the Democratic party. This resulted in a closed corporation and a lot of shenanigans.

"When people went in to vote, there weren't the checks and balances that were supposed to be built into the system. The Republican judges were in cahoots with the Democrats to see that as many votes for the Democratic machine were garnered as possible. There was outright cheating on election day." There still is cheating, Roeser added, but less, because of Project LEAP.

Project LEAP was the brainchild of Cook County State's Attorney Bernard Carey, who in 1970 lost an extremely close race for Cook County sheriff. Many felt that Carey might have been cheated out of victory by Chicago vote fraud. Carey then searched the statutes to find a way to control vote fraud. He discovered a statute (Illinois Revised Statutes, 1977, Ch. 46, sec. 14-1) which provides that each of the parties can appoint one election judge who doesn't

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live in the precinct (so long as the person is registered to vote in the county). That led to a meeting in October 1971 to form Project LEAP.

LEAP has a 36-member board, which includes "liberal Republicans, moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, fierce independents, community types all people who want to see clean elections," according to Kirsten L. Svare, Project LEAP executive director. But at the heart of the group are the people who go into the neighborhoods to serve as election judges.

One month after Project LEAP was organized, it began recruiting, placing and training these "wild card" judges. LEAP looked to college campuses, civic organizations, corporations, and the general public to find people willing to become the "wild card" or fifth judge in each precinct. Since 1971, LEAP has recruited and trained over 5,000 judges. Approximately 1,000 judges are recruited for each election throughout the city. They receive about two hours of training from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and extra training from LEAP on how to "spot and stop" vote fraud.

Although voting machines have virtually eliminated "ballot box stuffing" (filling out numerous ballots for a certain candidate), there are ways to cheat with voting machines, according to Svare. She described the kinds of vote fraud that judges have been trained to watch for during the last eight years. "One of the most frequent vote frauds," Svare explained, "was to have the election judges and the precinct captains go in the booth before the polling place opened, and of them would vote on the machine up to 50 times. If you stood outside, you could hear the bell going ding-ding-ding like in Las Vegas. This is the voting machine version of ballot box stuffing. Later, during the count, are supposed to be two election judges calling off the numbers from the backs of the machines. Some brazen ones might call off '92' if the count really was 29." The poll watcher often not allowed to watch or was even ejected by election judges so that the false count wouldn't be noted. "Then there are nonexistent voters," Svare continued.

"There's a saying that in Chicago we so respect our dead that we allow them to vote year after year. Many, many names have been kept on the voter rolls after persons have died or moved away. They have then 'voted' in the person of itinerants dragged to different polling places where they impersonated the dead people." At the opposite side of this "ghost voting" problem are the registered voters who are turned away from the polls because they might vote for the "wrong candidate." In 1972, black leaders in Chicago charged that thousands of black voters were turned away at the polls because it was feared they would "cross over" to vote against the regular Democratic organization candidate. The black leaders charged that election officials rejected the voters on the grounds that they hadn't lived at their addresses long enough, when in fact many of the people had voted from the same addresses for years.

Although voting machines have virtually eliminated 'ballot box stuffing,' there are ways to cheat with voting machines

Svare mentioned some other schemes: precinct captains voting for people who "couldn't make it" to the polling place; precinct captains palming cards that advise people to pull a certain lever; distributing literature inside the polling place (electioneering); threatening to take away garbage pickups and such from people who vote the "wrong way."

With a little ingenuity, even the sanctity of the secret ballot can be violated. Svare told a story about one prominent Chicago alderman who had the voting booth set up under the firemen's pole at the fire station. He looked down to see how his constituents voted, then accosted them on the street and asked: "How come you voted for so and so?"

At first the Project LEAP "wild card" judges met with opposition. In 1972 the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners approved only about one-third of the 561 LEAP judges who wanted to work in the November election. According to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the applications of the LEAP judges were "lost." (During the time they were supposedly lost they were seen in the office vault, where they were subsequently found.) City and state politicians attacked Project LEAP in Chicago newspapers as a bunch of troublemakers who were paranoid about election fraud. On election day, some LEAP judges were insulted, threatened and even physically abused. However, LEAP insisted on its legal right to have its "outside" judges approved and treated properly. Changing times and candidates who craved fair elections have led to acceptance of Project LEAP. In 1979 with 600 Project LEAP workers inside Chicago polling places Jane Byrne beat incumbent Mayor Michael Bilandic in the Democratic primary. She won despite the fact that party regulars supported Bilandic.

"If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be here as mayor of Chicago; it was that close," Mayor Byrne told Project LEAP workers at a fundraiser in Chicago in October. "As long as I'm mayor," she said, "there'll be no need to fear anyone will win an election and then find out they lost it. I pledge this won't happen to other candidates again."

At this same event, Bernard Carey told how he witnessed (through a barber shop window) precinct captains voting 30 times before the polling place officially opened. They were convicted. But Carey gave the real credit to the Project LEAP judges who go inside the polling places and spot the less obvious violations. "It takes courage for someone outside the neighborhood to go into the polling place and be a willing and effective witness. Thanks to them, today people actually receive jail sentences for voting violations. This shows that the system can and does work."

Diane Nordstrand of Chicago is one of those election judges who helps make the system work. "I read about LEAP, called them up and told them I had done poll watching. They said to apply to LEAP [for appointment by the Board of Election Commissioners]."

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After her training, Nordstrand then served as a judge in the 1978 elections.

"The precinct I watched was pretty clean, but there were three other precincts voting in the same location," said Nordstrand, a former social worker in Chicago. "I saw a person in the polling place before it opened, electioneering, and people helping people vote. On things I thought were illegal, I call the policeman. [There is a police officer in every Chicago polling place on election day, provided for in Ill. Rev. Stat., Ch 46, sec. 11-4.] The policeman was very responsive and stopped the electioneering."

Carol Zavala of Oak Park was involved in recruiting LEAP judges for Chicago elections. In 1973 she served as a poll watcher on Chicago's West Side and witnessed numerous violations. "I showed them the judges' manual pointing out the violations, and then this huge woman election judge ordered me out of there and said she didn't give a damn about the judges' manual. She took her hip and knocked me from behind the table." Zavala called the U.S. attorney, the state's attorney and a plainclothes policeman. The judge who had threatened Zavala was herself threatened with arrest. Zavala said, "I was so enraged about what happened, I contacted LEAP and started to recruit judges for them."

In 1974 Zavala helped place 80 judges in West Side polling places. In that campaign, a black candidate named Jesse D. Madison was running for state representative. Madison had lost an extremely close and controversial primary election in 1972. In the 1974 election, one of the judges Zavala had recruited noticed that 003 votes were written for Madison when the total on the machine read 031. The voting machine was impounded, and the four people who perpetrated the fraudulent count were indicted. "We've accounted for a number of other indictments and quite a few convictions," said Zavala.

Siegfried Flemming served as an election judge on Chicago's West Side in this same 1974 election. "I had become so disgusted with the dishonesty going on in elections that I contacted Project LEAP," said Flemming, a painting decorator. After receiving training from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners as well as Project LEAP, Flemming worked as a "wild card" judge on the West Side. Some of the irregularities he witnessed were reported to the F.B.I. and led to arrests and indictments. "If there was so much going on with me there, think of how much worse it would have been if no one was there to watch over it," said Flemming, credited by LEAP officials with greatly helping to clean up West Side elections.

Flemming, who was born in Germany, added: "Since I was brought up under Hitler, a free election has special meaning to me. I've seen what happens when a people don't have free elections."

Project LEAP and other anti-vote fraud groups such as the Better Government Association and the now-defunct Operation Eagle Eye have been instrumental in getting rid of such large-scale election frauds as "ghost voting," massive ballot box stuffing and alteration of vote totals. (Project LEAP also credits the late John H. Hanly, the chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners from 1973-1978, with sweeping internal reforms in the Election Board.)

But the work goes on. Svare said, "You still see a lot of electioneering within 100 feet of the polling place. There still is illegal assistance given to people who don't need assistance; while someone is showing them how the machine works, they also show them how to vote for certain candidates.

"Manipulation of nursing home residents is one of the big areas we're working on now. For instance, in some areas it was found that certain candidates got 98 percent of the votes from a nursing home and only 40 percent in the whole precinct." Svare said that Senate Bill 1146 (P.A. 81-953), designed to clean up absentee overseas balloting, was amended to help clean up voting at nursing homes and halfway houses. It provides that on the day before an election every precinct with a licensed shelter will have a team of election judges take absentee ballots to people who have applied for them at the home. Poll watchers will be allowed to be present. H.B. 2799 (P.A. 81-1211) provides that if the nursing home has a polling place on its grounds the election judges can visit incapacitated absentee voters in the home on election day.

If you want to be an election judge . . .

Project LEAP is recruiting judges for the 1980 elections in Chicago and St. Clair County. Registered voters and residents of Chicago or St. Clair County who want to serve as judges should contact: Kirsten L. Svare, Project LEAP, 127 N. Dearborn St., Chicago IL 60602, phone: 312/726-3954, or Betty Bucknell, Project LEAP of St. Clair County, 1st Presbyterian Church, 6901 State St., East St. Louis IL 62203.

If you feel there is a need for a Project LEAP in any other community, you should contact LEAP'S Chicago office.

The problem Roeser is particularly concerned about is the buying of poor people's votes. "Rich people always have power," said Roeser, who was director of congressional relations for the Peace Corps in 1970. "If the poor lose their electoral franchise and become convinced they have no power, it could be disastrous to our country, because then the poor have lost the only power they ever had. In this way LEAP is really a kind of social service to the poor. In the same vein I feel that our country should make election reform a top priority in social progress."

Although there have been significant election law reforms enacted in the last 10 years, individual Project LEAPers mentioned several areas for possible legislative improvement: creating an open primary (in which voters do not have to declare a party preference) because the party declaration has been used as a method of intimidation in Chicago; tightening up voter registration procedures including a prohibition against electioneering within or too near the place of registration; making tally sheets available to any candidate within two days of the closing of polls; moving the burden of vote recount from the candidates to election authorities; facilitating the recount process; sending information booklets to every registered voter before an election; making one judge in five a nonpartisan judge.

Chicago's Project LEAP has been so successful that in 1978, LEAP was

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asked by the St. Clair County League of Women Voters to come down to East St. Louis and set up a miniprogram there. "East St. Louis had problems for years," said Svare. "The League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit alleging that the Board of Election Commissioners was run in a manner that allowed massive vote fraud. There had been massive 'ghost voting' and other irregularities [see April 1979 Illinois Issues, pp. 16-17].

"We were asked to form a chapter there. We sent staffers down and pulled together a mini-Chicago program. Chicago people helped them coordinate it, but local people were the main participants." The newly formed Project Leap of St. Clair County recruited people to serve as honest election judges with the cooperation of both parties.

"The St. Clair County state's attorney gave us credit for having one of the most honest elections East St. Louis has seen in a long time," said Donna Young, coordinator of Project LEAP of St. Clair County. "Project LEAP had a lot to do with reducing 'ghost voting' and other irregularities because people knew our judges were there," she added. Now Project LEAP of St. Clair County places and trains poll watchers and judges throughout the county.

LEAP was also asked to go into Washington, D.C., as observers in the 1978 mayoral primary when it was feared there would be attempted fraud. "Our next target is to set up a branch in Dallas in 1980, and we're doing the groundwork for more chapters in 1981," said Svare. "Our goal is to become a national organization."

"Project LEAP is a very unique organization in that it was formed not to gain any political result but to improve the process," said Roeser. "On Election night while others are celebrating victory or mourning defeat, the LEAP volunteers are celebrating improved procedures in the voting process." Roeser and Svare hope that like the gun battles that once occurred on election days the more subtle election illegalities that now exist will one day fade into what they call the "bad old days."

Dennis B. Fradin is a free-lance writer and has authored several articles for Illinois Issues.

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