Eight days before Chicago’s Feb. 26 municipal election, a complaint was filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections alleging that the campaign of 25th Ward aldermanic candidate Byron Sigcho-Lopez stole absentee ballots from two apartment complexes in Chinatown.
In emails obtained by WBEZ, Andrew Finko, an attorney hired by the Sigcho-Lopez campaign, vehemently denied the allegations and claimed that the complaint was a smear campaign by a political rival.
State and county officials are investigating claims of vote-buying in the 25th Ward, though officials would not confirm that they are investigating the Sigcho-Lopez campaign. And while it’s not clear that the Sigcho-Lopez campaign did anything improper, several sources told WBEZ that political campaigns have long sought elderly Chinatown residents for their votes.
“I ask that the Board of Elections investigate candidate Byron for ballot theft among Chinatown Seniors,” wrote Sophia Olazaba in a Feb. 18 email to Steve Sandvoss, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections. WBEZ, through a Freedom of Information Act request, obtained a copy of the email and several others related to alleged vote fraud in the 25th Ward.
Sigcho-Lopez was one of five candidates vying to replace powerful Ald. Danny Solis, 25th Ward, who is retiring after more than 20 years in office. Sigcho-Lopez and Alex Acevedo were the top two vote-getters in the Feb. 26 election and will square off in an April 2 runoff for the seat.
When she filed her complaint, Olazaba was working as the campaign manager for Hilario Dominguez, one of the five 25th Ward candidates in the Feb. 26 race. In her emailed complaint, Olazaba alleged that a senior in the Chinatown Elderly Apartments reported that two Sigcho-Lopez supporters went door to door in January checking identification of residents there. “What residents were not told at the time was that these two individuals were using the information to apply for mail-in ballots,” Olazaba wrote.
According to the complaint, in February, after the mail-in ballots had arrived, one of the Sigcho-Lopez supporters returned to the complex to collect ballots that had not been completed. The Sigcho-Lopez supporter told a resident there that she was required to vote for Sigcho-Lopez because the resident had previously accepted a meal offered by the Sigcho-Lopez campaign, according to the complaint.
The supporter also indicated that the resident didn’t need to fill out the mail-in ballot herself because “someone else would take care of it,” Olazaba wrote. “It appears that nearly 100 seniors were brought to Phoenix Restaurant for a free meal in return for an agreement for vote for Sigcho-Lopez.”
Olazaba also alleged that seniors at another Chinatown apartment complex, Archer Courts, reported that they were called to a gathering organized by the Sigcho-Lopez campaign and “given goody bags in exchange for their vote.”
WBEZ obtained emails from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners reflecting its communications with the state board of elections, the Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney and an attorney representing the Sigcho-Lopez campaign. A day after receiving the complaint, the state board of elections forwarded the complaint to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Neither the state’s nor the city’s boards of elections are investigating the matter. Both offices referred the complaint to the Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney. The state’s attorney’s office would not return calls for comment. However, the Office of the Illinois Attorney General confirmed that it was working with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to investigate allegations of vote fraud in the 25th Ward. But officials with the attorney general’s office would not confirm if the investigation was tied to any specific allegations against the Sigcho-Lopez campaign.
Zoe Chan, campaign manager for Sigcho-Lopez, denied the allegations. Chan said the campaign did not have access to the Chinatown Elderly Apartments because management restricted access. She also said that the campaign didn’t buy lunches for the seniors there.
Acevedo’s campaign declined to comment.
While it’s unclear exactly what happened involving 25th Ward vote-by-mail ballots in the Feb. 26 election, there is a long history of political campaigns taking advantage of elderly Chinatown residents, according to WBEZ’s interviews with residents and staff of the Chinatown Elderly Apartments, and voting rights advocates familiar with the community.
WBEZ obtained a list of individuals from the 25th Ward who submitted vote-by-mail or absentee ballots for the Feb. 26 election. A reporter and a translator visited the Chinatown Elderly Apartments in search of residents there who submitted absentee ballots.
Zhuping Cao has dementia, according to her caregiver. Someone, she doesn’t know who, filled out her absentee ballot. That ballot was returned on Feb. 10, according to absentee ballot records.
Cao said “some friends in the building” filled out her ballot for her. She said her hand shivers and that’s the reason someone filled it out for her.
Many of the voters interviewed were hesitant to talk. Some even pushed the reporter and translator out the door.
A note in Chinese posted in the door of a voter indicated that a volunteer policing group invited residents inside the building to have lunch on March 18 with gifts and a raffle. Residents were asked to bring their ID and ballot. March 18 was the start of early voting for the April 2 runoff.
Kelland Lee, the building manager at Chinatown Elderly Apartments, said political campaigns started targeting the building looking for voters in December. “I was unable to control those things,” Lee said. “Everybody comes here saying we want to have a party, give gifts to the tenants, say hi to them.”
Lee was unable to identify which campaigns came to the building. There is no security desk in the Chinatown Elderly Apartments, which has 139 units.
Some say allegations of steering elderly Chinese residents toward voting for a specific candidate is nothing new.
“I think it's extremely upsetting to think there are individuals out there taking advantage of our senior community and really infringing on their voting rights. I think that’s completely unacceptable,” said Andy Kang, executive director with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Unfortunately, rumors that have circulated in the community about these practices have existed for a long time.”
“I think we’ve seen with the investigation and criminal proceedings of [outgoing] alderman Danny Solis in the 25th Ward, this culture of corruption really not respecting the rights of the community members, in particular their voting rights,” Kang added. “Apparently, it’s part of that culture, and it needs to change as soon as possible.”
The Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois announced Friday that it will send more than 20 attorneys into polling places in the 25th Ward to address the allegations of election fraud.
“It’s really important to ensure there is some trust in the institution and that the next representatives from that area are chosen in a way that’s seen as a transparent and forthright process,” said Juan Morado, president of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois.
In the Feb. 26 election, Sigcho-Lopez got 194 votes in the 25th Ward’s 18th precinct, which includes both the Chinatown Elderly Apartments and the Archer Courts complex. That’s 54 percent of the 360 ballots cast in the 25th Ward race. It was Sigcho-Lopez’s best showing among the ward’s 32 precincts, according to elections data.
Investigators with the Office of the Illinois Attorney General are looking into a separate alleged vote-buying scheme inside the Barbara Jean Wright Court Apartments. That development is located in the 25th Ward’s 4th precinct where Sigcho-Lopez received 104 votes of the 263 ballots cast on Feb. 26, or 40 percent of the vote.
In 2015, Sigcho-Lopez reported that the Chinese American Service League was engaging in “partisan politics” on behalf of Solis, DNAinfo reported. Sigcho-Lopez reported the partisan politics inside Archer Courts, one of the buildings he is now accused of manipulating.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.