As I watched the results come in on Election Night, using Twitter and Facebook to provide up-to-the-minute quips on each bit of news, I came across a shocking status on Facebook. Okay, well, my wife came across a shocking status on her Facebook. It was from her friend Brenda.
Brenda was sharing her voting experience — or, depending on how you look at it, her non-voting experience. She was claiming to be the victim of voter fraud.
I immediately recognized the potential for an important story. Most Latinos support voter ID laws, and here was a Latina living in a solidly Democratic state who might’ve been the victim of voter fraud herself. Was Brenda’s story proof that the True the Voters were right? Did America need voter ID laws?
I decided to call Brenda and find out. It was about 8:30 on Election Night — Romney was ahead in the Electoral College — when Brenda told me her story.
She had left work at 6 p.m. on the dot and hurried to the polling place just a few blocks from her home in Elmwood Park. It was Election Day, and she was anxious to cast her last-minute ballot for the president. Sure, Illinois is a deep blue state, and Chicago is Obama’s adoptive home town, but Brenda was voting on principle. Plus, Brenda’s district had a Republican representative that she wanted to unseat.
When she got to her polling place, a man sitting at a table asked for her name and told her to sit down. A few minutes passed before the worker asked her to come up to the table again. He asked her for her name again, and Brenda told him. He wasn’t understanding her last name.
“Lopez,” said another worker sitting nearby, “like George Lopez. Can’t you tell?” The two men laughed, and Brenda forced a smile. She spotted her name in the book that the first man was looking through and pointed to it.
“You voted already,” the man said. Brenda looked at the signature next to her name. It wasn’t her signature. “Let me see your ID,” the man asked. She gave him an ID with a signature on it that didn’t match the one in the book, which Brenda described as “bubbly.”
The man asked her to sign her name on a piece of paper for comparison. While the new signature didn’t quite match the one on her ID, both were nothing like the signature in the book. That’s when the man asked Brenda if she lived with anyone else, and Brenda told him that she lived with her parents and sister.
“Your sister voted for you then,” a woman waiting behind Brenda confidently said. “You could report her for voter fraud.”
Brenda, of course, called her sister Marisol from the polling place. Her sister was confused by the question and rejected the idea that she would vote in her sister’s name. The poll worker offered her a provisional ballot. Brenda, infuriated by the whole ordeal, turned and walked out.
Brenda gave me the phone number that she used to report the incident. It was the number to the NAACP’s voter hotline, which notifies callers that their reports will be forwarded to their local election boards.
I wanted to get to the bottom of Brenda’s story, so I contacted the Illinois State Board of Elections. I sent an email to a Ms. Courtney Greve, the communications director for the election board. Thinking that the board might’ve already heard from the NAACP about Brenda, I merely identified who I was, gave a few basics of Brenda’s story, and asked the communications director if she could clarify the matter for me.
When Greve called me the next day, I was driving. So I pulled over and got my pen and notepad ready.
Greve explained to me how someone can be mistakenly marked as having already voted when they in fact have not, an instance of what she termed a “judged error.” It seems simple enough. Early voters names are recorded, and after Early Voting ends — which was the Saturday before Election Day in Illinois — that record is sent to each precinct in the state. On the morning of the election, workers at each polling place compare the names of early voters with the names of the voters in their precinct. When a voter’s name appears on the Early Voting list, workers mark them down in the precinct record as having already voted early.
What must’ve happened in Brenda’s case, according to the communications director, is that a poll worker mistakenly marked Brenda’s name. What the poll workers did to remedy the situation is exactly what Greve said they should’ve done: they offered Brenda a provisional ballot, which are used when similar situations occur on Election Day and are verified no more than 14 days after the election. Provisional ballots are provided for a variety of reasons, such as to record a person’s vote when they fail to present proper ID on Election Day or, in Brenda’s case, when records mistakenly show that they took advantage of Early Voting.
According to the Board of Election’s own records, Brenda indeed did not cast a ballot in 2012.
Greve’s explanation seems to wrap up the fiasco quite nicely, except for the whole signature business. Greve said that the signature in the book matches the one Brenda provided when she registered back in 2004. Maybe Brenda saw the signature next to her name and, not recognizing it (it has been a while), thought someone else had forged her signature. Then again, why did the poll worker asked to see Brenda’s signature to verify whether or not she voted?
In the end, having not been there myself, it’s hard to discern what actually happened that night. Were I forced to reach a conclusion, I’d say that Brenda wasn’t the victim of voter fraud, just an unfortunate error committed by a poll worker.
So maybe her story isn’t such a grand endorsement of voter ID laws, but if Brenda’s Election Day experience teaches us anything, it’s to take advantage of Early Voting. According to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and the Cook County Clerk’s Office, more than 460,000 voters cast early ballots in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. (I was unable to find post-election data on Latino Early Voting turnout, but during the Early Voting weeks, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Hoy reported low Early Voting turnout in heavily Latino precincts in Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Little Village and Cicero.)
There are plenty of good reasons to vote early besides avoiding the kind of fiasco that Brenda met with on Election Day. For one, you can vote on the weekend. Most Early Voting places are open on Saturdays between 9 am to 5 pm, and some are even open on Sundays until 3. Plus, having always taken advantage of Early Voting myself, I can’t remember ever having to wait in line to vote.
It’s too bad Brenda was put off from voting this year by what happened to her, and hopefully new technology will shrink the amount of errors made by poll workers on Election Day, as the communications director told me it would.
Still, vote early and get the whole process out of the way. Then you can relax on Election Day and leave the last-minute voting to the procrastinators.