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High Court orders new E.C. election
JON L. HENDRICKS / THE TIMES Christine Vasquez, president of the Women for Change Group, cheers Friday to passing motorists in East Chicago about the Indiana Supreme Court's decision to order a new democratic primary for East Chicago mayor.

East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick will have to hit the campaign trail.

He will be squaring off -- again -- against former police chief and council member George Pabey, his main competition in the May 2003 East Chicago mayoral primary.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled Friday the primary election will have to be reheld, reversing trial and appeals court rulings that refused to grant Pabey another chance.

Pabey and his allies are deemed by some as a thorn in Pastrick's side, and by others, as a potential political savior in East Chicago. Pabey sued to have all the absentee ballots declared invalid or to have the election invalidated and a new election ordered.

The state's highest court voted 3-2 to order a special election to replace the 2003 one. In that race, Pastrick beat Pabey -- but only after absentee ballots were counted.

Of 8,227 votes cast in person on election day, Pabey received 199 more than Pastrick. Once 1,950 absentee ballots were entered into the equation, Pastrick had defeated Pabey by 477 votes.

Pabey, who long has said the absentee votes were obtained fraudulently -- from the poor, the frail and even the dead, said he was elated about the decision.

He said he also was grateful for trial court judge Steven King's harsh language blasting the improprieties that occurred during the primary. King issued a 104-page opinion that East Chicago's Democratic mayoral primary may have been a "textbook example of chicanery."

Voting process 'perverted'

Even though King ruled in Pastrick's favor at trial and an appeals court voted 2-1 to let the decision stand, the Supreme Court relied on King's strong admonition of Pastrick to ultimately find in favor of Pabey.

The campaign starts immediately, Pabey said. "The people want a change. The people are ready for a change."

Pastrick did not return repeated calls to comment.

Donald Koliboski, assistant to the mayor, said he spoke briefly with Pastrick earlier in the day. "The mayor is meeting with his attorneys," he said. "He is out of town."

The Supreme Court ruling, which involved one dissenting opinion, said the trial court concluded Pabey had proven that a "deliberate series of actions occurred" that "perverted the absentee voting process and compromised the integrity and results of that election," and that Pabey satisfied his burden of proof at trial.

In reversing the appeals court, the high court wrote, "it is apparent that a political subculture exists in Lake County which views the political machinations at issue with a 'wink and a smile' and 'business as usual.'

"The routine and cavalier use of 'absence from Lake County' on election day, a reason often supplied by the Pastrick supporters ... of the absentee ballot applications, is the common predicate to the most insidious and widespread of the abuse tactics exposed here: the predatory approach to the unwitting," the ruling said.

The dissenting opinion noted, however, that the presence of corruption, even if widespread, is no basis to upset an election and nullify the votes of the electorate if a majority of untainted votes supported the winning candidate.

The dissent also said the standard for courts intervening in an election was "problematic," and that it was prone to subjectivity.

"This seems to me to invite courts to exercise essentially discretionary authority to alter election results that they deem undermined," the dissenting justice wrote.

What happens next

By statute, the case goes back to King, the trial judge, for a special election order.

Once issued, the special election must be held on the "following ninth Tuesday." That means a special election could be held as early as October, which would be a logistical nightmare for the Lake County Election Board, said James Wieser, attorney for the election board.

"It will cause us innumerable problems to have one right before a general election," Wieser said.

"We've said at the outset, we'll do whatever we have to do to conduct a proper election. It may take innovation and creativity, but we'll do it."

Lake County Democratic Party Chairman Stephen "Bob" Stiglich said a special board meeting will be called to determine how the special election will be handled.

"I'm the leader of the party, and we'll follow the mandate of the court -- run the election according to the letter of the law," Stiglich said.

Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Republican, could remember only one special election ordered in Indiana's history.

"It's a historic day," Rokita said. "We've been working on this (voter fraud) for a while, saying these are indeed abuses. Soldiers have died so we might vote. It cheapens the law when political hacks manipulate the system."

Pabey's attorney, Nathaniel Ruff, said he wasn't too worried about the logistics of a new election.

"I'm ecstatic," Ruff said. "I've been working so hard on this for a year and half, along with Bruce Kotzen, chief appellate counsel, and Carmen Fernandez, co-counsel on the trial court level. But George Pabey was the person willing to fight the machine and continue to fight even when they stole the election.

"It will not only set precedent in Indiana but perhaps in the whole country. It's a great day for the people of East Chicago."

Lake County Republican Chairman John Curley said he didn't wish to comment at this time.

"It's not the time for me to make a statement until all the facts are reviewed, and everyone gets their due diligence with the court," Curley said.

Questions still remain

Dale Simmons, co-director of the election division for the secretary of state, said the Supreme Court decision to order a new election raises many questions, among them:

-- Will there have to be a general election?

-- Can anyone run in the new primary?

-- Will there be a new Republican primary?

-- Who pays for the special elections?

-- Are Independents and write-ins able to run in the general election?

"As the Supreme Court found dealing with the issue, our statutes don't do too well to provide a remedy for election contests," Simmons said. "But they did find that fundamentally, the elections belong to the sovereign people. We need to do the right thing."

Rokita said his office will spend the next few days trying to find answers to those questions.

"Like a lot of court decisions, not every 'i' was dotted and 't' was crossed," Rokita said. "We'll be working throughout he weekend to try to get this all figured out."

Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter said in a press conference late Friday afternoon the high court ruling will help restore the public's confidence in the government process in Northwest Indiana.

"For too long, the communities of Northwest Indiana have been stirred by corrupt acts through elections," Carter said, noting that money spent on distorting election results could have been spent fixing tax and budget problems or changes with regard to the steel industry.

Carter said he agreed with King's view that the new election will mean a cleansing process for the citizens of East Chicago.

It has not been decided when the new primary election will be held, or the specifics of that election. The judge will establish guidelines for the new election, Carter said. A new primary still will be necessary if Pastrick resigns, he said.

"We need a new generation of leaders who will work for the public's benefit and play by the rules," he said.

Times Staff Writer Mema Ayi contributed to this article.

Debra Gruszecki can be reached at dgruszecki@nwitimes.com or (219) 933-4158.

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