Short Pencil Louie was a legendary precinct captain who worked the West Side, back in the days when wards there could be counted on to turn out votes for the Machine. Louie helped make sure that happened. In 1955, when Richard J. Daley was running to unseat Mayor Martin Kennelly, Louie used his short pencil to erase votes for Kennelly and write them in for Daley.
The polling place is the source of so much of this political city’s political lore. The famous photo of a ward heeler wearing a turned down fedora and chomping a cigar was taken outside a Chicago polling place, on Primary Day in 1964. In 1999, I could tell that Mayor Richard M. Daley was trying to unseat Ald. Helen Shiller, because beefy Irish guys in White Sox jackets were handing out palm cards for her opponent in Uptown, next to Shiller supporters wearing buttons that read “I Live in the 46th Ward.”
Last month’s primary election may have marked the end of in-person voting in Chicago — or at least foreshadowed its decline. The primary took place just three days before Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order for the entire state. Pritzker was criticized for not postponing the March 17 primary to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine did in his state.
Two weeks after the vote, Revall Burke, a 60-year-old Chicago election judge, died of complications related to coronavirus. Burke had worked the 27th Precinct of the 17th Ward, in the Southwest Side’s 60620 zip code, which has the most COVID-19 cases in the city. The judges there were not issued gloves or masks, only a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
Given that fatality, and given what a fiasco Wisconsin’s April 4 election was, Illinois should consider switching to an all vote-by-mail election in November.
We’re already headed in that direction. In suburban Cook County, the number of mail-in ballots increased by 52 percent over the 2016 primary. For the first time ever, more than half of suburban voters cast their ballots before Election Day, either by mail or at an early voting center, up from 22 percent in 2016. In Chicago-proper, in-person turnout plummeted, but a record number of mail-in ballot requests left turnout around 31 percent, or 7 percent higher than 2012.
Illinois, which allows absentee voting for any reason, is ahead of a lot of states in voting by mail. In Alabama, absentee ballot requests must be accompanied by a voter ID and notarized by two people over the age of 18. In Texas, only voters over 65 or those with a disability can vote absentee without an excuse.
However, five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, Oregon and Washington — mail ballots to every voter, making the vote-by-mail option automatic. Oregon conducts its elections exclusively by mail, with no polling places.
“Vote by mail is the simplest way to avoid repeating the nightmare of Wisconsin’s primary,” University of Oregon political scientist Patricia Southwell recently wrote in The Atlantic. “Given our current health crisis, we have no other choice.”
In-person voting is ingrained in America’s political culture. The reason we vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is, historically, so farmers could get to their polling places. Early November is after the harvest, but before the first heavy snowfall, and Tuesday allowed for a full day’s travel by horse after Sunday church.
But we no longer live in that agrarian world.
President Donald Trump, who voted by mail in Florida in 2018, has condemned calls for all-mail elections, tweeting that the proposal has “[t]remendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
But it’s hard to imagine how voting by mail could lead to more fraud than Chicago politicians have allegedly committed at polling sites. There are stories of precinct captains luring voters inside with turkeys or bottles of muscatel. Or standing outside the booths to make sure voters got in, voted a straight Democratic ticket, and got out. Or dumping Republican ballots into the Chicago River, as Old Man Daley’s opponents accused him of doing during the 1960 presidential election.
With a mail-in ballot, you’ll still be able to vote early, but you won’t be able to vote often anymore.