By Ben Joravsky

One day late last month Vinni Hall, a City Colleges professor, opened her newspaper and learned that the Republican-controlled state senate has been blocking Cook County’s ability to accurately count votes in its elections. Within a few weeks, her outrage helped persuade the Chicago branch of the ACLU, on whose board she sits, to sue the state Board of Elections, a body controlled largely by the Republican Party.

At the center of the issue is vote-counting technology, which has taken on immense importance in the aftermath of the presidential election fiasco in Florida. Like many Florida districts, Cook County uses a punch-card system that throws out a vote if the voter doesn’t punch through the ballot completely or has punched the holes of more than one candidate for an office–as thousands of Palm Beach Democrats apparently did, to their everlasting grief.

The use of the system in Cook County has resulted in dramatic differences between the number of voters and the number of votes cast in elections. In the November presidential election, for example, the Cook County undercount was the highest in the state: about 120,000 ballots didn’t register a vote for president–50,000 in the suburbs and 70,000 in the city. Those 70,000 uncounted ballots represented a staggering 7.2 percent of all city ballots. By comparison, the undercount in McHenry County, which has optical scanners, was less than half of one percent.

Politicians have known about this problem since 1990, when Joanne Alter, then a candidate for Cook County clerk, wrote about it in a study. In 1998 Cook County clerk David Orr, an independent Democrat who lives in Rogers Park, finally decided to address the problem by updating the county’s vote-counting technology. He says he had two choices. He could either buy a high-tech optical-scan system, which allows voters to feed special paper ballots into a reader that counts their votes. Or he could buy new technology that works with the current system. Both systems notify voters if they’ve voted for more than one candidate for an office. “If voters accidentally vote for two candidates, the system allows them to vote again,” he says. “That way we cut down on the undercount.”

Orr decided to go with the second option. “We had a lot of reasons for going that way,” says Michael Kreloff, Orr’s chief legislative aide. “Voters were familiar with it, for one. But also our ballots are so much longer than any counties who have the optical scanner, because of all the judges. The paper listing all the candidates would be unwieldy and long.” Orr then spent $25 million on the equipment, which was tested in a few wards and townships in the March 2000 primary.

There was only one problem: updating the punch-card system required a special vote by the General Assembly. “We have a democracy,” says Orr, “and a democracy requires that everything related to any change in election procedure has to be approved by the state legislature.”

Well, not every election procedure. A few years ago the assembly approved a bill allowing any county to change to an optical-scanner system without approval. Eight counties around the state had done so in time for November’s election, and Du Page and Lake counties have since announced that they’ll soon be switching over. However, counties seeking to update punch-card technology still needed special authorization from the General Assembly.

Orr and his allies knew that a bill to update Cook County’s technology was sure to pass in the Democrat-controlled house. But passage wouldn’t be easy in the Senate, where James “Pate” Philip, the GOP powerhouse from Du Page County, controls the flow of legislation and makes no attempt to conceal his antipathy to Chicago and Cook County Democrats.

“We all knew Pate Philip wasn’t going to bend over backwards to help count Democratic votes in Chicago,” says one Democratic strategist. “Why should he care if Democratic votes are discarded? It’s in his interest to keep the votes down.”

They decided to take the high road, and Orr put together a bipartisan coalition of politicians from throughout Cook County. That coalition then persuaded a Republican senator, Chris Radogno, to sponsor a bill that would allow the county to use the technology it now owned. She introduced the bill last spring, hoping that Philip would allow it to come to a vote. “We were hoping that he would do it because it was the right thing to do,” says the strategist.

Fat chance. The Cook County Democrats were like lambs in a den of wolves. They had no groundswell of civic support for their cause. Few mainstream dailies paid their bill any attention. And Philip clearly didn’t care that they’d found Republican allies.

“Essentially what happened is that an affirmative act of the legislature is required for David Orr to flip the switch on the technology,” says state senator Barack Obama, who represents a Democratic south-side district. “It would cost the state nothing–it would have simply permitted Cook County to use the technology that’s already in its possession. But Pate Philip didn’t let the bill out of committee. It wasn’t even discussed or debated.”

Cook County Democrats say they all but begged sympathetic Republican senators and lobbyists to plead with Philip on their behalf. “They made us jump through so many hoops,” says the strategist. “First they said, ‘We’re insulted because you didn’t come to us first,'” that is, before buying the technology. “Then they said, ‘There are still 90 counties that don’t have this kind of technology. Giving it to Cook County would be unfair to them.’ We pointed out that these other counties can get the optical scanner anytime they want.”

But Philip–who did not return a call for comment–never bent, and the bill died last spring in the senate’s rules committee. “Maybe we made a mistake by not doing it in a feisty manner,” says the strategist. “We played it as insiders–sort of, ‘Come on, guys, let’s do what’s right.’ But you know, the first rule in politics is self-survival.”

One consequence was the huge undercount in the November election. In the first days after the election, few people noticed the undercount, particularly since Al Gore, the candidate it could have hurt, won the state decisively. But during the Florida battle, Bill Daley, the mayor’s older brother and Gore’s campaign chair, complained about the Dade County undercount, and Republicans retorted that he should be more concerned about the undercount in his own backyard.

The publicity put Orr on the defensive. On December 23 he held a press conference with Jesse Jackson, calling on Philip to allow the legislation to come up for a vote. The Tribune did a story on the press conference, and it was that story that infuriated Vinni Hall. “Orr and Jackson were talking about our voting machines and how some people have a second chance with error notification and other people don’t,” she says. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Nobody’s notifying me if I make a mistake.’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something wrong here.’ It seems like some duplicity. If it’s good for one county, it’s good for all the counties.”

The more she thought about it, the angrier she got. Why should Philip–or any out-of-county Republican for that matter–have a say over what machinery Cook County uses to count its votes? she thought. What’s next–legislative approval before Streets and San buys a new dump truck? Whatever happened to the GOP’s supposedly sacred devotion to home rule?

After Hall brought the matter to the attention of the ACLU, the organization decided to file suit on behalf of three residents of Chicago: Hall, Timuel Black (a longtime political activist), and Cleo Wilson (executive director of the Playboy Foundation). “This is the most fundamental right we have in a participatory democracy,” says Ed Yohnka, press spokesman for the ACLU. “We always talk about the fact that everyone should vote and every vote should be counted. We shouldn’t tolerate an error rate of 7 percent.”

The ACLU suit, which was filed January 11, says the current voting system “deprives plaintiffs of their rights to due process and to equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” The suit seeks an injunction prohibiting any future election “unless all voters are provided error notification of overvotes, undervotes and other ballot irregularities and the opportunity to correct their ballots and to have their intended votes counted.”

Most Cook County Democrats are glad that someone’s finally attacking the GOP’s efforts to block a fair vote count in the county. But curiously, some of the county’s leading Democrats–including Mayor Daley and County Board president John Stroger–have been silent on the issue. Perhaps they don’t recognize its importance, or they’re reluctant to change a system that’s worked well for them in local elections, or they don’t want to join forces with Orr, whom they don’t like.

But few politicians will be able to ignore the issue much longer. “I must confess that the Democratic caucus didn’t press on this bill because it wasn’t a high priority,” says Obamba. “After November of course everything’s changed. I don’t think a large number of us, including myself, even knew the magnitude of spoiled ballots in Cook County. We certainly recognize it now.”

License to Teach

The latest round in the school board’s effort to fire Chicago Vocational High School math teacher Carol Caref is over, and to the surprise of almost every observer, Caref won. “When you consider everything, you have to figure the odds were against us,” says Michael Radzilowsky, Caref’s lawyer. “But we got a very honest and fair consideration by the hearing officer. I’m very pleased.”

The story, reported here last October, began on December 6, 1997, when Caref, a self-avowed communist, took a 16-year-old sophomore to Beloit, Wisconsin, for a Saturday afternoon anti-Ku Klux Klan rally. Caref got permission from the girl’s grandmother, her guardian, to take her. It was, Caref figured, a noble cause–showing a black girl from the south side that there was an integrated front against the Klan. At the rally a scuffle started between anti-Klan protesters and police, and the girl was arrested. Caref accompanied her to the police station, picked her up when she was released, and drove her back home to Chicago. The grandmother, though upset, didn’t hold Caref responsible for the incident, and no one pressed charges.

Thirteen months later a board investigator–it turns out that dozens of board investigators snoop around the private lives of teachers–heard about the case while asking questions about another communist teacher at CVS (who was also fired, but that’s another story). Another year passed, and then last February school CEO Paul Vallas fired Caref without pay, charging her with, among other things, “conduct unbecoming a teacher.”

Caref appealed, arguing that Vallas and the board had concocted the case to punish her for her political beliefs. Last fall the matter was presented to a hearing officer, Dennis Stoia, and in late December he released his decision. “I disagree with the Board’s contention that taking a 16-year-old African-American student to a KKK rally is necessarily objectionable,” he wrote. “Young people need to broaden their horizons by observing the world that they will soon be facing on their own. Thankfully, there are adults who are willing, with parental consent, to accompany our youth to non-school, but still educational events.”

Responding to the charge that Caref’s actions represented “conduct unbecoming to a teacher,” Stoia wrote, “A teacher’s willingness to broaden their education by spending off-duty time with students is to be commended.” He concluded that “the Board did not meet its burden of proof” and that “Caref’s suspension with intent to discharge was without just or sufficient cause. All references to this incident should be stricken from her records.”

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Stoia’s decision is a nonbinding recommendation. If the board chooses to follow it, Caref can return to the classroom immediately. If it doesn’t, she’ll have to file a lawsuit in circuit court, which would drag the case out for at least another year–and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal fees that could otherwise go into classrooms. The board will probably make a decision at its next meeting.

“I want to go back to the classroom–that’s part of who I am,” says Caref. “If you look at the big picture, you’re looking at students who were deprived of a math teacher and a system that reinforces this notion of intimidation. They like to accuse communists of indoctrination. But I don’t know what else you can call what happened here other than an attempt by the board to control everything that goes on in the schools.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.