Improving Chicago’s Elections

April 5, 2024

It shouldn't require ten days for voters to learn an election outcome

It was just before 5 p.m. on Friday, March 29, when the Associated Press (AP) declared retired Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke had prevailed over Clayton Harris III in the Democratic primary for Cook County State’s Attorney.

While the AP calling the primary race in favor of Judge O’Neill Burke put an end to progressives’ fantasies of extending their dominion over the State’s Attorney’s office, it also ended an agonizingly slow and disorderly tabulation of votes to determine the outcome of the primary race. While it is not unusual for the outcome of an election contest to be sorted out in the wee hours of election night, the fact it required ten days to announce Judge O’Neill Burke as the winner of the election lifted a veil on several flaws in Cook County’s election framework.

For the benefit of voters across Cook County, the Illinois General Assembly, Cook County, and Chicago should work jointly to correct these flaws.

To fully grasp the problems at hand, it is probably helpful to turn our minds back to the Saturday immediately following Election Day, the 23rd of March, when, without notice, the Chicago Board of Elections (CBOE) admitted it had overlooked the existence of 10,000 votes which had been collected from drop boxes one day prior to Election Day.

Explaining the enormity of the slipup, CBOE spokesman Max Bever stated the error was entirely on the Board and expressed regret for the mix up. Bever, however, failed to fully or satisfactorily explain how the ream of votes in question — some 10,659 ballots cast — had been collected but not counted in the five-day period following the polls closing.

A maddening mistake, the CBOE then committed another blunder when it reported one day later a total of 2,800 provisional ballots remained to be added to the vote total. This number of provisional ballots, however, then changed from 2,882 to 1,882. Addressing the perplexing conflict in official numbers, the CBOE explained a Board employee had mistakenly entered the incorrect number of provisional ballots which had arrived on March 19. In the tracks of this gaffe, election officials informed media figures the Board had planned to record 1,000 votes, but the number of votes curiously became 2,800 without CBOE officials ever offering an explanation.

While Mr. Bevor conceded the Board’s honest errors fully and publicly, the CBOE’s serial foul ups caused considerable and understandable distress among voters who had patiently bore hardships as a result of the sluggish vote count. As the counting of votes moved at a glacial pace, the overdue results roused anger and suspicion among many voters, some of whom who remained unconvinced of Bevor’s explanations and suspected voter fraud was afoot.

Worse, CBOE’s string of boo-boos caused a sensation on social media. As the vote tallying ploughed on, Chicago X was aflame with silly, superficial hot takes and outright false election predictions. In some of the cranky fringes of Chicago X, a frenzy boiled over with comments from irresponsible conspiracy peddlers evoking the era of Richard Daley, when massive ballot stuffing and widespread fraud in precincts and wards through­out was an accepted way of life in Chicago.

While the mistakes committed in the Democratic primary for State’s Attorney are a part of what made the election memorable, they were errors which can be avoided in future elections if some simple steps are taken. On the local level, the Cook County and Chicago Boards of Elections, both of which are administered by the Cook County and Chicago Clerk’s Offices, could be considered for consolidation and to function as an independent bureaucracy overseeing elections in the whole of Cook County. The combining of these two panels could improve efficiency in election returns and the management of election records.

Furthermore, Cook County should also pay special attention to mail-in votes from Cook County jail. Under Illinois law, individuals in the custody of the County who are either awaiting sentencing or on trial are permitted to vote. However, those individuals awaiting sentencing or serving a sentence for a felony conviction are ineligible to cast ballots in an election. Cook County must ordain stringent safeguards to ensure non-residents in the temporary custody of the County do not participate in Cook County or Chicago elections.

To improve the efficacy of elections, Cook County and Chicago should enlist the assistance of the Illinois General Assembly (IGA). Bearing in mind an excessive ten-day period was required to fully tabulate votes, lawmakers in Springfield should craft precise and definite election rules which alter deadlines for mail-in or drop-off ballots.

Under new election rules, mail-in ballots should be postmarked seven days ahead of Election Day to be considered valid. Similarly, the IGA should also address the use of drop-off ballots deposited at Early Voting locations. To ensure a felicitous vote count, election officials must end the collection of all drop-off ballots at the close of business day one day prior to Election Day. Election Day, therefore, should be reserved only for in-person voting.

While Chicago’s and Cook County’s election systems appear robust, the Democratic primary for State’s Attorney exposed some election shortcomings which should be corrected. In the primary race to become the Democratic nominee for State’s Attorney, voters learned a little about human error and patience. The mistakes, oversight, and extended period required to tally votes should inspire officials in Chicago, Cook County, and Springfield to act.

Residents of Cook County deserve timely, efficient elections. The good news here is, to date, there is no evidence of vote fraud, whether it be digital manipulation or the old-fashioned variety. The fact the issues which arose in the Democratic primary were limited to headaches and not vote tampering or outright fraud should energize lawmakers to enact some minor election changes.

Chicago voters should never be kept waiting ten days to learn the victor in an election. Chicago and Cook County need some slight election reform. The good news is the reform is minor and solutions are available. If lawmakers can agree to minute changes to election law, voters’ faith in the core goodness of elections will improve.

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