Reports of electioneering are cropping up around the city as Chicago prepares to choose a new mayor and treasurer, and 15 wards host runoff elections for alderman. But in the 46th Ward on the north side, incumbent Alderman James Cappleman has put a sweet twist on the age-old practice of trying to entice voters right before they cast their ballots. On Friday, poll watchers began to complain that Cappleman and his allies were dropping off batches of frosted cupcakes decorated with the words “Team Cappleman” at nursing home polling places.
Nursing homes often have on-site voting to accommodate residents Friday to Monday preceding an election, explained Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen. Though they’re not ward-wide early voting sites, when nursing homes function as polling places the normal electioneering rules apply—no campaigning, such as passing out flyers or buttons, or any other signaling of support for a particular candidate, can occur within 100 feet of the site.
Poll watchers working with the campaign of the alderman’s opponent, Marianne Lalonde, observed Cappleman personally deliver cupcakes to all four of the nursing homes that were hosting voting in the ward and filed complaints with the Board of Elections. On Friday morning, board investigators found that the delivery of cupcakes to the Alden Lakeland rehabilitation facility’s receptionist “constitutes electioneering,” Allen said. “Staff notified and cupcakes disposed of,” he added, quoting from an investigator’s report.
“There’s a lot of corruption that goes on in nursing homes because a lot of the residents can be easily manipulated,” said Danielle Elliott, one of the poll watchers who captured photos of Cappleman delivering cupcakes on Friday and Monday mornings. Elliott said that on Monday the cupcakes were no longer branded with Cappleman’s name, but the fact that the alderman personally appeared inside the polling place with treats didn’t sit right with her. “People are seeing that you are there, you’re identified by judges and residents and that in and of itself is drawing attention to you…Especially if [the residents] are older or more senile you can encourage them to vote a certain way.”
Cappleman’s campaign director Adam Gunther didn’t deny that the alderman had delivered the cupcakes but disagreed that they constituted electioneering. “There’s nothing electioneering about dropping off cupcakes,” he said. “The way I understand it is that James left [the cupcakes] with employees at the front desk. It would only violate a law if it was in exchange for a vote.” (This is an incorrect interpretation of electioneering, Allen confirmed. Campaign activity doesn’t have to rise to the level of vote-buying to qualify as electioneering.)
After downplaying the gravity of the cupcakes, Gunther asked: “Shouldn’t the Board of Elections have looked into why Marianne’s people were there taking pictures?” and implied that Elliott’s photography inside the polling place was improper.
“No, that’s poll watching,” Allen said, beginning to crack up. “You’re not allowed to march around with signs or hand out literature where voting is going on. Or cupcakes.” The spokesman struggled to compose himself. “Taking a photo of someone else bringing in cupcakes with the candidate’s name on it? I don’t think the photo is the problem!” he managed to squeeze through a crescendo of laughter. “The photo is what’s called documentation!”
Ultimately, both Allen and Elliott said the cupcakes were thrown out before they could reach voters. “Democracy was preserved.” Allen concluded. “The cupcakes were not.” v