The Office of the Illinois Attorney General has assigned two attorneys to investigate an alleged vote-buying scheme in the 25th Ward.
On election day, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights received a complaint from one precinct. Some voters casting their ballots at the Barbara Jean Wright Court Apartments said they were promised a $20 gift card in exchange for supporting candidate Byron Sigcho-Lopez, said Ami Gandhi, an attorney with the nonpartisan organization.
“A few of those voters mentioned, specifically, that they were offered gift cards in exchange for voting for candidate Byron Sigcho-Lopez,” Gandhi said. “This is an area of the city that we have long been concerned about. Voter disenfranchisement is a known problem in this area.”
The lawyers’ committee notified the offices of the Illinois Attorney General and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. Sigcho-Lopez said his campaign did not offer gift cards in exchange for votes. He said he would cooperate with the investigation.
Jim Allen, the Chicago Board of Elections spokesman, said his office investigated this situation a few weeks ago. Allen explained that his office saw a flyer that read “Barbara Jean Wright Tenant Council will give out a free $20 visa card on election day to any voter who lives at Barbara Jean Wright and shows proof of having voted.”
Allen said the flyer promising gift cards did not support any particular candidate, but there was a separate flyer posted next to it from the Sigcho-Lopez campaign.
Allen said he called a phone number listed on the flyer promising gift cards and spoke with Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, an affordable housing advocacy nonprofit. Allen said he explained to Levinger that it was illegal to offer money or other compensation in exchange for voting.
Levinger confirmed that her organization had distributed the flyers. Levinger said she wanted to encourage voter turnout within the apartment complex. The Barbara Jean Wright Apartments is a low-income development that receives federal subsidies. Levinger said the complex is split between the 11th and 25th Wards and lacks effective political representation. After receiving Allen’s call, Levinger said she stopped promoting the initiative.
Levinger said the organization tried to correct the issue by issuing gift cards to any resident at the complex because she wanted to keep the initial promise. But they ran out of the gift cards. Levinger said they handed out 53 gift cards to residents living in the 11th Ward and 84 gift cards for residents living in the 25th Ward.
Sigcho-Lopez, an educator and policy researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was the leading vote-getter in the 25th Ward race. He received 29 percent of the vote Tuesday and earned a spot in the April 2nd runoff. That race will also feature Alex Acevedo, a registered nurse, who finished second in the voting on Tuesday with 22 percent of the vote.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.