Board of Elections investigating malicious robo calls to election judges

Voters were stuck in lines into the wee hours of the morning on Election Day, including at this location, where people waited in line until 3 a.m. to submit ballots.

By Beth Werge

City officials were forced to send out a score of stand-in election judges after thousands of them didn’t show up for work on the most important day of the election calendar. Robo calls from an unknown source to paid election judges discouraged them from showing up, and hundreds of substitute judges had to be enlisted. The Chicago Board of Elections is now chasing after the person – or people – who made those calls happen.

About 2,000 judges did not show up after receiving recorded calls saying they needed more training or had to vote a certain way before they could work.

Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen said Wednesday there’s an ongoing investigation. “It’s our turn to finish up the investigation and give that to the prosecutors,” Allen said. Steve Campbell, a representative for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, confirmed that his office is investigating the matter.

Jim Tenuto, assistant executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said the calls created a serious problem. “It just shows how important the judges are to the system, and when information goes out – whether it’s a prank or intentional – it’s serious because it caused judges to not show up or to be late,” he said. “It’s more than just a prank.”

When judges failed to show up, some polling places didn’t open on time and voters got upset, Tenuto said. He added that it’s impossible to know if the delayed openings affected the results.

Dick Simpson, University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and former Chicago alderman, also said he believes the offenders should be prosecuted by the state or the U.S. Attorney’s office, which prosecutes federal crimes.

“They had an interference in the electoral process. The United States and the state have subpoena powers so they can compel the tests necessary,” Simpson said. “Prosecuting this case will prevent worse offenses in the future,”

Simpson said that the best theory he has heard so far is that the Republican Party was behind the scheme but he can’t be sure. He doesn’t believe it actually influenced any races.

“The margin for most races, like the governor’s race, was greater than the effect of the robo call,” he said. “It’s possible that in a close race like the treasurers’ it might be the difference, but it probably isn’t likely.”

While dirty tricks in elections are nothing new, the robo call scheme is unique, Simpson believes.

Adding to the list of problems on Election Day were late openings due to equipment issue and confusion with Illinois allowing same-day voter registration for the first time. One polling place in Chicago saw a final vote cast at 3 a.m. Wednesday.

“I think people figured the turnout would be heavy,” Tenuto said, “but I don’t think anyone thought it would be like that.”

Either way, the board will be trying to improve conditions for next election as well as making sure the robo call problem doesn’t happen again.

“The people at the Chicago Board of Elections are very good people,” Tenuto said. “They’re very qualified and take their jobs very seriously. I think they’re doing more than just writing it off as a prank or as dirty politics.

“If nothing else, I hope that that they’re able to determine who’s behind it… so it doesn’t happen again in the future,” he said.