Challenger Tim Meegan (left) says 33rd Ward alderman Deb Mell (far right) used dirty tricks to come out ahead on Election Day.
  • Richard A. Chapman / Sun-Times
  • Challenger Tim Meegan (left) says 33rd Ward alderman Deb Mell (far right) used dirty tricks to come out ahead on Election Day.

The Logan Square restaurant Ceviche may not look like a hub of political controversy, but that’s just what it was on election day, according to 33rd Ward aldermanic candidate Tim Meegan, who currently stands just 13 votes away from a runoff in the ward.

According to Meegan’s poll watchers—campaign volunteers who look out for mischief at voting locations—the restaurant doubled as both a polling place and a pickup location for 33rd Ward incumbent Deb Mell’s campaign signs. While volunteers are allowed to pass out campaign materials outside of polling places, it’s illegal to have anything like that going on inside.

The restaurant’s owner maintains there were no signs from any of the candidates inside the polling place on February 24.

“One of our supporters found campaign materials literally at the ballot boxes at Ceviche. The machine was out in full force on Tuesday,” Meegan said.

By the end of election day, Mell—whose father, Dick Mell, served as 33rd Ward alderman for more than 38 years—looked like she was headed for a runoff. Instead, after absentee ballots began rolling in, her lead grew. Meegan, a Chicago Teachers Union delegate who received about $30,000 in backing from the union, received 34 percent of the vote, with nonprofit consultant Annisa Wanat getting 15 percent.

The “Ceviche incident,” as it were, makes up just one incident of electioneering and voter intimidation alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Meegan, who requested a recount in the 33rd Ward.

The suit also alleges multiple incidents of voter manipulation, including the handling of ballots by Mell poll watchers and Mell campaign materials being placed inside polling booths. It also charges that Dick Mell himself stood inside polling places asking voters to give his daughter their support.

“Dick Mell’s organization has zero respect for the law and the voters,” said Andrew Finko, Meegan’s lawyer, who filed the complaint. “It’s reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s voting style—a throwback to a different era that I had hoped we were leaving in the history books.”

Deb Mell did not respond to requests for comment.

So far the ward’s absentee ballots have swung in Mell’s direction. As of Tuesday she had 4,092 votes, 13 over the number needed to avoid a runoff, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. All absentee votes must be postmarked prior to election day in order to be counted, with March 10 as the cutoff this year. If Mell still has a lead after all those ballots are counted, Meegan’s campaign will have to wait for the recount and a final ruling on the suit.

One of Meegan’s more outspoken poll watchers has been Aaron Goldstein, a former Rod Blagojevich defense attorney who also ran for Deb Mell’s empty state house seat after she was appointed alderman in 2013.

Goldstein, who was stationed in the 15th precinct—an Albany Park location where Meegan finished strongly—said he saw many of the same Dick Mell supporters out hustling on election day as he had during his own 2013 election.

“We saw voters being given Girl Scout cookies right before they voted. It was crazy,” Goldstein said.

If Meegan receives enough absentee votes to trigger a runoff, the lawsuit could end up being a moot point, Goldstein said. In that case, Meegan would go on to face Mell in a runoff election on April 7.

“All we want is to make sure all the votes are counted and we have a clean election,” Meegan said. “And we feel that had the election been a clean one, we would not be in the position we’re in right now.”