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Chicago Voting Problems: No Dead Voters, But Several Forged Petitions

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CHICAGO — It's not on a par with how Chicagoans used to keep voting after they died. Or with the curious case of the man in the 1980s whose signature wound up on a local ballot application – twice_ even though he had no fingers or thumbs.

But the race for Chicago mayor is providing fresh evidence that the city's storied history for election shenanigans lives on. With Mayor Richard M. Daley's retirement opening up the office for the first time in 21 years, Illinois authorities find themselves investigating allegations that candidates to succeed him turned in ballot-nomination petitions "signed" and "stamped" by notaries who didn't actually sign or stamp them.

"The false notary, that's a brand new one on me," said Don Rose, a longtime Chicago political analyst who has worked on election reform campaigns.

Exactly 50 years ago, Daley's father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, delivered big vote totals in the city to help John F. Kennedy win the presidency in 1960, fueling conspiracy theories that are debated to this date. In the decades since, safeguards have been instituted to prevent the wholesale vote fraud the old Chicago Machine once used to elect its friends and sabotage its opponents. Those measures include independent election judges, address checks and electronic ballots.

But stopping all the creative cheating is another story.

The Secretary of State's office, which launched the latest probe, said the signatures of two notary publics were faked on thousands of petition sheets submitted by four mayoral candidates, including former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and state Sen. James Meeks, who dropped out of the race Thursday. Suspect signatures also allegedly were discovered on petitions collected for Rob Halpin, a businessman who rented the Chicago house of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and ran his own short-lived mayoral campaign.

Local election law requires candidates to submit the signatures of 12,500 registered voters to get on the ballot, but candidates often try to submit tens of thousands more as a show of strength. And in recent years, a cottage industry of paid signature-gatherers has emerged.

State officials said there were no indications the candidates did anything wrong; they are focused on finding out who impersonated the notaries and why. The signature gatherers in question "walked in with fully executed forms, signatures and notary signs and we just included them with our stack," said Bryan Zisis, a spokesman for Meeks.

Given Chicago's political history, the discovery produced a quick reaction at City Hall. "There should be federal investigations, state investigations," the mayor blurted when asked by reporters about the scam. "If I did that, the feds would be right after me tomorrow. They'd be chasing me down the street."

But these days, few think anyone in the city has the clout to sway a major election, as the elder Daley was suspected of doing. "The Boss" allegedly had precinct workers run up the numbers for Kennedy, although nothing was ever proven and Daley insisted it all was on the up and up.

It's been years since precinct workers were caught going to transient hotels to register voters without their knowledge. That practice came to light after a newspaper reporter, William Reckenwald, checked into such a hotel using the name of Irish novelist James Joyce and followed up later to find a James Joyce listed on the voter rolls from that very hotel.

In the old days, the frauds were audacious. Once in the 1970s, said Recktenwald, who investigated election abuses for years, one candidate's nominating petitions looked like the residents of a large public housing project "had come in (and signed) in alphabetical order, and every fourth name was in the same handwriting."

"The fact that everyone in a particular precinct would vote for the same candidate and then you flip down (the ballot) and everyone in the precinct would vote for the same judge. that doesn't happen anymore," said Recktenwald, who now teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University.

However, the problems with the latest petitions seem to involve at least one homeless man, who told the Chicago Sun-Times that he was paid to gather more than 3,000 voter signatures for each of two rival candidates.

The safeguards put in place in recent years have made it tougher to vote after death. The city's board of election now sends a notice to every voter address. If it is returned to the post office, the name is taken off the voter rolls, and the only way back on is through a sworn affidavit.

Another factor is technology. Voting rolls are computerized and watched a lot closer. In the 1970s, a private group, Legal Elections in All Precincts, or LEAP, was authorized to appoint independent election judges to man precincts on election day, replacing politically aligned judges who routinely turned a blind eye to vote tampering.

But every once in a while there are reminders of the old "four legged voting," in which ward bosses accompanied voters into the booths to give them a hand. In August, two former ward operatives were sentenced to nearly a year in jail after being convicted of steering absentee votes to Alderman Bernard Stone, in some cases by filling out others' ballots themselves.

The nominating petitions for city office will help keep fraud alive, said Rose. "If you have to hire people to get your signatures and pay them per signature, those people are going to cheat," he said.