By Ted Kleine

Last week James Ballard voted in the 37th Ward aldermanic election and met a machine that could have changed the course of American history.

When Ballard turned in his ballot, an election judge fed it into a counter, which spat it back and flashed this message: Ballot Not Accepted. The judge, Jack Motley, looked at the register tape spooling out of the machine. It reported that Ballard had overvoted.

“You marked two,” Motley told him. “This is a spoiled ballot.”

Ballard returned to the booth and punched a new ballot. This one slid smoothly through the counter.

“I didn’t bring my glasses into the booth,” Ballard said, explaining why he’d made the mistake. “I couldn’t read the small print. I’m thinking it was vote for two candidates.”

If Ballard had double punched in last November’s general election, his vote wouldn’t have been counted. It happened to a lot of people in his west side neighborhood. In the 37th Ward, one out of every eight votes for president was thrown out due to voter error, the second-highest discard rate in the city. Al Gore got 16,429 votes here, which means he could have lost more than 2,000 votes–enough, as we now know, to make the difference in a close state. (George W. Bush received 392 votes in the ward.) Citywide, the discard rate was 7 percent, believed to be a record. Hardest hit were low-income and Spanish-speaking wards, which are overwhelmingly Democratic–and in the five wards with the biggest “fall-off” rates Gore won 95 percent of the vote.

Ballard’s vote for alderman was rescued because Cook County is finally able to use the “second chance” technology built into its voting equipment. As detailed in a January 19 Neighborhood News story, the equipment was purchased a couple years ago for $25 million, but last year the Republican-controlled state senate refused to pass a bill allowing it to be used. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Democratic Party of Illinois then sued the state board of elections, and last month a judge issued an injunction ordering that the equipment be turned on for the February 27 special aldermanic elections in the 17th and 37th wards, as well as for several suburban primaries.

The difference was staggering. This time, only 1.1 percent of the votes were lost in the 37th Ward. In the 8th precinct, where Ballard voted, 181 people went to the polls. The counters caught 14 mispunched ballots, and the judges sent voters back into the booths to do it right. Most were double votes, though one woman didn’t punch her chad out. They failed to rescue one overvote and two undervotes, 1.7 percent of the total. Lost votes wouldn’t have affected the outcome–incumbent alderman Emma Mitts beat challenger Cedric Giles with 81 percent of the vote–but catching people’s errors helped restore their faith in the electoral system.

Many in this heavily black ward believe votes were intentionally set aside in the Florida presidential election, so Motley was careful to demonstrate that it wouldn’t happen here. Every time a ballot slid through the counter, he pointed at an LCD display tallying the vote total.

“Look at this: 78,” Motley told Eddie Pointer. Pointer’s ballot whooshed through the slot and into a sealed box beneath the table. “Now it says 79.”

Pointer was gratified. “A whole lot of people have lost confidence in voting,” he said. “I’ve heard ’em say it don’t make sense to vote, ’cause they don’t know if their vote’s gonna be counted. If they’d had these all over the country, Bush would have never got in. It’s a level playing field now. Everybody has a chance.”

Out in the suburbs, the improvement was just as impressive. The last time there was a Democratic primary for Cicero town president, in 1997, 20 percent of the ballots were thrown out. This time: 2.2 percent.

Cook County election officials are going back to court this month to ask for an order allowing second-chance voting in every election. Cook County clerk David Orr thinks last week’s results will help their case with Judge Judith Nowicki, who’s handling the matter. “We’ve shown how it can work in a smaller election,” Orr says.

The real test will come in March 2002, when voters are faced with a long primary ballot. Between now and then, the county clerk’s office and the Chicago Board of Elections will concentrate on reeducating voters, with public service announcements, mailings, and a “road show” that brings voting equipment to high schools, senior citizen centers, ward offices, and supermarkets.

If it all works–and if other communities are as serious about voting reform as Chicago seems to be–the next time we elect a public official we can be sure the winning candidate drew the biggest crowd to the polls.

“This makes it now, if you win, you win,” says Jack Motley. “If you didn’t, you didn’t.”