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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004 07:56 pm

Trick or Treat?

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Cover illustration by Frederick Noland

This Tuesday, ballots will be cast in what has been billed the most important presidential election in generations. Voter registration across the nation is at an all-time high. Hundreds of millions of dollars have beenspent to sway voters; tens of thousands of attorneys are being deployed to states to safeguard against Election Day shenanigans.

All this, we're told, because the great lesson of the 2000 election debacle is that every vote counts.

But in Illinois, your vote hasn't even been courted.

Neither President George W. Bush nor U.S. Sen. John Kerry has campaigned here much, and -- fortunately, some might say -- little of the fear-inducing propaganda war being waged by each camp has played out on our airwaves.

"Illinois is taken for granted," says John Williams, a Springfield resident and political activist.

"It's like we're out of play, like we're not important."

Bush and Kerry, however, are pulling out all the stops to woo voters in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. These swing states so close to Illinois are being flooded with negative political advertising and brigades of lawyers poised to pounce on any alleged wrongdoing.

In sum, an estimated $1.2 billion will be spent just on this year's presidential race, according to a recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics. In the final days of the campaign, candidates are spending in excess of $9 million a day, according to the New York Times, in what is becoming the most expensive contest in history.

Such frenzied election activity has barely infiltrated Illinois' borders. Neither Bush nor Kerry has bothered to campaign in Illinois, which has voted for the Democratic nominee in the last three elections and is expected to do so again on Tuesday. The most recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows Kerry with a commanding 8-point lead.

"Illinois has been a flyover state for Democrats and Republicans because of the perception borne out of the polls that Kerry will do well here," says Illinois Democratic Party spokesman Steve Brown.

Having been ignored for months during such a hyped and seemingly endless election cycle, Illinoisans are suffering from what might be called an acute case of swing-state envy.

Bush, for instance, has visited Missouri --until recently one of the so-called battleground states-- at least 21 times since becoming president and eight times in the last year. The president has been in Illinois just once since January; likewise, Vice President Dick Cheney has campaigned in Illinois only twice this year, according to an Illinois Republican Party spokesman. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, have been to Missouri 12 times this year but to Illinois just three times each.

The Libertarian candidate, Michael Badnarik, will be making his first trip to Illinois this week. Other third-party candidates, such as Ralph Nader, did not qualify to appear on the Illinois ballot.

During Cheney's last stop in Illinois, he was photographed in Chicago with his arm wrapped around then-U.S. Senate candidate Jack Ryan -- who was later booted off the Republican ticket as a result of allegations that he pressured his wife to visit sex clubs. Maryland talk show host Alan Keyes was later tapped to replace Ryan. Some say Bush and Cheney scrapped plans to campaign in Illinois because of Democrat Barack Obama's dominance in the U.S. Senate race. Polls show Obama leads by more than 40 points in what may become the biggest landslide in state history.

Just two months ago, Illinois Republican Committeeman Bob Kjellander, who is coordinating Bush's re-election efforts in the Midwest, made a promise during a political rally held at the state fairgrounds. "Illinois has not been written off," said Kjellander, a Springfield-based lobbyist. "Bush and Cheney will visit Illinois after the Republican [National] Convention."

Kjellander guessed wrong. Polls made clear from the start that Bush has little chance of winning the state, whose 21 electoral votes were virtually forfeited in advance to Kerry.

In fact, it's not Illinois that is staunchly backing Kerry. Rather, it's Chicago -- a Democratic stronghold where voter registration is at its highest level ever -- that is expected to dictate Illinois' presidential pick.

In 2000, for example, Sangamon County chose Bush over Vice President Al Gore by a wide margin. And in 1996, Sangamon County backed Republican nominee Bob Dole over incumbent Democratic President Bill Clinton. But such preferences mattered little: Republican-leaning Sangamon County generates the equivalent of less than 2 percent of the votes cast in liberal Chicago.

This Friday, Oct. 29, the Illinois State Board of Elections plans to release the official statewide tally for voter registration, which is expected to have swelled significantly. Such is the case in many states, such as Ohio, which has reportedly added 700,000 registered voters to its rolls since the start of the year.

No records are being broken in Sangamon County, however. Roughly 126,000 voters are registered here, comparable to figures from past elections, according to the county clerk's office.

"Voter turnout is going to be spotty in Illinois," predicts University of Illinois political scientist Kent Redfield.

When it comes to the presidential contest, he says, "In central Illinois, especially, there's really nothing going on."

Illinois undercount worst in 2000

The lack of attention paid to Illinois may depress voter turnout in certain parts of the state, including here in Springfield. But this election year, many political analysts are not so much asking whether people will vote as they are wondering whether their votes will be counted.

In 2000 Florida's error-prone punch-card balloting system became a poster child for America's election ills. After six weeks of wrangling over dimpled, hanging, and "pregnant" chads, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a Florida recount and effectively made Bush president.

But allegations of voter fraud, intimidation, and manipulation of voting machines in Florida have carried over to this year's contest, which the New York Times recently called "the most litigious, lawyer-fraught election in history."

Although the national spotlight was aimed at the Sunshine State in 2000, Illinois actually had a higher undercount in the presidential contest than any other state -- even Florida. Nearly 4 percent of Illinois ballots were discarded that year, compared with fewer than 3 percent in Florida, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis released in December 2000.

And, as in Florida, a disproportionate number of ballot errors in Illinois was discovered in voting precincts that were predominantly African-American and Hispanic. Some inner-city Chicago wards, for example, experienced undervotes of more than 12 percent, and in East St. Louis, 10 percent of all ballots cast lacked a countable vote for president.

In January 2001 the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Illinois State Board of Elections, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, and election commissioners in Cook County, East St. Louis, and Alexander County. The lawsuit called Illinois' voting system "unequal and inadequate."

Sangamon County was named in a lesser-known parallel lawsuit filed by private lawyers. "The lawsuit, in a nutshell, claimed that blacks and Hispanics were disenfranchised by the process," says Sangamon County Clerk Joe Aiello. The suit also cited as defendants Will and Whiteside counties, Aiello notes; all used the same punch-card machines made notorious in Florida.

Neither Aiello nor lawyers involved in the suit were able to provide statistics identifying which voting precincts in Sangamon County experienced high rates of ballot errors.

These lawsuits were later combined and led to a settlement decreeing that new, technologically advanced voting systems be installed in local jurisdictions throughout Illinois by March 2006, according to ACLU staff lawyer Adam Schwartz.

"This is the last statewide general election to use punch cards," says Ron Michaelson, who recently retired as executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections and now teaches election reform at University of Illinois at Springfield. "The landscape will be dramatically changed by 2006."

Unfortunately, this does nothing to ensure fairness in Tuesday's election. Indeed, little progress has been made to improve the country's electoral process at either the state or the federal level.

Voting system remains vulnerable

Since 2000, more than 1,700 election-reform bills have been introduced in statehouses across the country, and some two dozen such measures were considered by Congress, according to Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group. But most of these bills fell by the wayside.

The Help America Vote Act, signed into law in 2002, marked the first time that the federal government has provided money for elections. But only about half of the $4 billion offered to states to improve voting machines and train poll workers has been distributed. Illinois received no federal aid because the state did not submit reform plans necessary to qualify.

However, some improvements have been made in voting machines across the state. For example, a judge's ruling in August 2001 led Chicago and Cook County officials to install error-detection devices in their punch-card machines. Now the machines will reject improperly marked ballots and give voters the chance to recast their votes.

The use of optical-scanner machines with error notification will be 40 percent more prevalent statewide since the last presidential election, according to Michaelson.

In Sangamon County -- as in many jurisdictions in Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio -- the same antiquated voting machines from four years ago will be employed in this election. "The equipment is on its last legs," admits Aiello.

Aiello says he has worked to increase voter education and better train election judges. He calls voting a "participation sport" and says that voters need to take responsibility for whether their votes count. "They've got to do their job, and we'll do our job," he says. "If voters don't do it right, that's their problem, not mine."

Springfield NAACP president Rudy Davenport takes issue with this attitude: "It's incumbent on the administration to see that all citizens are treated fairly."

Referring to the lawsuit filed against Sangamon County, Davenport says, "There really is no reason that there should be a racial difference. If there are problems, they should be seen countywide."

Others, like Davenport, anticipate problems again this year in Illinois. Last month a collection of more than 60 civil-liberties groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, formed the Election Protection Coalition with the aim of monitoring elections. Illinois is among a handful of states on the group's "priority 1" list.

But problems with Illinois' voting equipment may again fall under the radar, as in 2000, because the race here is not expected to be close. Such problems would have a greater impact in more narrowly divided states. Adding to the anticipated chaos, some 50 million electronic touch-screen machines will be used for the first time in states across the country on Tuesday -- though not in Illinois.

These ATM-like machines are the subject of great controversy. Some lack any paper trail that would allow for a recount, some have been proved susceptible to hackers, and some of the leading companies manufacturing the machines have been linked to the Republican Party.

The nation's voting system remains vulnerable, according to officials in Sangamon County, in the rest of Illinois, and across the country who are bracing themselves for a possible repeat of the controversial 2000 election. As a result, political observers of every ideology are anticipating a host of problems come Nov. 2.

"Forget Election Day," writes John Fund, the author of a recent book on election fraud.

"America may soon face an Election Month."

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