Katie Kolon is a model voter. She researches all the candidates, down to the very last judge. “I really believe in voting for local candidates,” says Kolon, who lives in West Town.
So she definitely knew who would be on her ballot for state senate in the 5th District —incumbent Patricia Van Pelt and challenger Robert “Bob” Fioretti. But that’s not the names she saw there.
Instead, she got a ballot for the 2nd District race, pitting Angelica Alfaro against Omar Aquino. Her state rep race was also wrong.
“I brought my sample ballot in with all of my selections and notes. And then I’m like, who are these people? Where are my people?” says Kolon, an attorney who has helped monitor elections in the past.
Kolon figured she must have made a mistake in preparing to vote—and reasoned that the official ballot she had been handed must be correct. Inside the voting booth—on her phone—she quickly looked for information on these new candidates, and cast her ballot.
Nearly 800,000 Chicagoans voted in Illinois primaries this week. But a number of those voters, like Kolon, were given the wrong ballot. It’s unclear precisely how many—less informed voters may not even have noticed, and the Chicago Board of Elections is downplaying incidents. But WBEZ found enough cases to raise questions about how many people, like Kolon, cast ballots in races they have no legal right to vote in, and lost the chance to choose elected officials who will represent them.
“I tried to bring it up to the people who were there working –and they were first just like, ‘We can’t discuss politics, we can’t discuss politics.” And I’m like, ‘I’m not talking about politics—I’m just talking about a problem with voting,’” Kolon recounts. “They didn’t really have anything to say to me about what to do, so I just said I would contact the Board of Elections later.”
What Kolon didn’t realize—how would she?—is that she lives in a “split precinct.” Boundaries of most voting districts do not necessarily align to Chicago precinct boundaries—so voters in the same precinct could live in two different state rep districts, state senate districts, U.S. House districts, judicial subcircuits, County board districts—or any combination of those. There are 620 split precincts in the city—nearly a third of the total. Poll workers have to check a voter’s address to know which “ballot style” to give them. (One precinct in the city—the 43rd precinct of the 27th ward—has 8 different ballot styles.)
Kolon was given the wrong ballot, and she wasn’t the only one.
“This is the only ballot we have”
In Hyde Park—5th Ward, 18th precinct—Daniel Follmer knew he lived in the 2nd Congressional district; the dividing line runs right down the middle of his street.
But instead of getting a ballot for the Robin Kelly race, he was handed a 1st District ballot, Bobby Rush versus Howard Brookins and O. Patrick Brutus.
“So I immediately went back to the election judge and said I have the wrong ballot. She said to me, ‘No, that’s not how this one works—this is just Republican or Democrat.’”
Follmer said he understood this was a primary—“but this is not the Congressional district I live in, so I need a ballot with the right elections on it,” he told the judge, pulling out his registration card to show her his district number. “And she said, ‘Oh no, you just vote for them next time if you don’t see them this time. This is the only ballot we have.’”
Some 10,000 judges work on Election Day in Chicago. It’s a grueling, 15-hour slog for which they’re paid $125. Judges do get some training (they earn an extra $45 if they take it), but the information about split precincts is buried deep in Chapter 6 of the election judge manual—four short paragraphs.
At his polling place, Follmer had to decide what to do. “You have to kind of make a split-second decision. Do I want to fight this? Or do I just want to vote and get it over with? And I’m thinking, like, ‘Can I be late for work today? Do I think this really matters?’”
Follmer decided he didn’t have time for everything to be resolved, and he figured it was just this one race that was wrong—the rest of his ballot was correct.
“So I just went back to the booth and voted for all except the Congressional election, and I cast my ballot.” (Follmer reasoned he had no right to vote in the 1st District—even though someone was giving him an opportunity to do so—so he left that race blank. His wife, Jessica Rhoades, who also received the wrong ballot, came up with another solution: she wrote in “Robin Kelly,” the Congresswoman she wanted to vote for in her own district.)
Follmer said he asked a neighbor if he noticed he’d been given the wrong ballot; he hadn’t noticed. “A lot of people just don’t know who they’re supposed to be voting for,” Follmer says.
Chicago Board of Elections says problems are not widespread
Jim Allen, spokesman for Chicago’s Board of Elections, says sometimes in split precincts judges just need voters to remind them there may be multiple ballot styles. He says often the second ballot style is on site in the election supply cabinet; judges just need to pull it out.
“Sometimes, early in the morning, right after they’ve set up, there can be failures,” said Allen. (All the examples in this story took place before 8:30am.) “And if the voter does the right thing—they’re gonna notice that [they’ve been given the wrong ballot], and then go back to the judges. They can spoil the ballot, they can issue a new one.”
Allen says the Board of Elections got somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 calls reporting problems on Election Day—that’s low for a Chicago election, he said. Complaints haven’t been analyzed yet, but Allen estimates there were just a few dozen calls regarding people being given the wrong ballot. (Follmer called Election Central that day and says the operator took the issue seriously and immediately called the polling place. Katie Kolon says she also called the hotline number on Election Day, but couldn’t get through.)
Allen says voters can be wrong as well—sometimes they see campaign signs and tell judges they want a ballot with those candidates, without realizing they may not live in the candidates’ district.
Asked whether any of this could be grounds for a candidate to challenge an election, Allen said it could be. “I mean, we’ll see if it gets to that point,” he said.
Candidate handed wrong ballot in her own race
Perhaps the most bizarre story of a voter being handed the wrong ballot on Tuesday was that of Jay Travis, candidate for state representative in the 26th District, along the lakefront on the South Side. On Election Day, Travis headed to her polling place, in Bronzeville. A photographer from the Hyde Park Herald was with her, hoping to shoot her picture as she cast her vote.
But in the voting booth, she couldn’t find her name. She’d been given a ballot for the heated 5th District race, Ken Dunkin versus Juliana Stratton.
“I sort of combed over the ballot, and that’s when I noticed it was the wrong ballot. I came out and returned the ballot and I let them know that, ‘I cannot vote with this ballot, I need the correct ballot that has my race on it.’”
Judges did find the correct ballots—a half hour later. (The Hyde Park Herald has identified additional voters at multiple polling places who were given wrong ballots.)
Nearly 40 percent of precincts in Travis’s district are split precincts—and she’s sure other voters were also given the wrong ballot, including everyone who voted at her polling place in the two hours before she got there. Travis says she doesn’t know whether to blame incompetent election workers or something more nefarious. Either way, she says, “in a democracy, where folks have the right to vote, they should be able to do so.”
Travis lost to the incumbent. She’s mulling whether to challenge the election.
Linda Lutton is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation