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Illinois voters can't play it straight this time

Illinois voters can't play it straight this time

Lack of straight-party voting option could have mixed results -- but most see

Medill News Service

CHICAGO -- While political commentators predict low turnout for Tuesday's

election, one Democratic ward committeeman expects "record numbers."

"My people are mad as hell," said Alderman Michael Chandler, who oversees the

24th Ward on Chicago's West Side. "It's payback time for the Republicans."

Last year, legislators abolished straight-ticket voting, an option that allowed

voters to punch one number on their ballots and vote for all the Democratic or

Republican candidates up for election. Traditionally, straight-ticket voting

has helped the Democrats, especially in minority wards such as Chandler's.

His ward likes the party punch. In the November 1996 general election, 72

percent of the voters in the predominantly African-American ward chose to

"punch 10" and vote a straight Democratic ticket.

Chandler's ward wasn't the only one. Nearly three out of four voters in the

22nd, 28th and 37th wards used the party-punch that year. Overall in 1996,

black wards chose the straight-ticket option 64 percent of the time; Latino

wards, 61 percent.

So, in the first Illinois election without straight-ticket voting since 1891,

no one -- not the parties, not the candidates and not the voters -- know what

to expect at the polls.

Still, the end of the party punch could represent a significant disadvantage

for Democrats, especially in Chicago. Two years ago, 50 percent of the ballots

cast citywide were straight-ticket Democrat punches. Instead of pushing

candidates, the campaign urged voters to "punch 10" and cast a ballot for every

Democratic candidate.

The strategy worked. Dick Devine, a Democratic candidate with limited name

recognition, scored an upset in the Cook County state's attorney race. And

Democrats swept back into power in the Illinois House of Representatives.

A few months later, the GOP retaliated.

When the Republican-controlled General Assembly convened at the end of its

legislative session in January 1997, it ended more than 100 years of

"one-punch" straight-party voting in Illinois.

The vote spurred Cook County Clerk David Orr to file a lawsuit alleging that

the Assembly's vote was unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Francis Barth rejected Orr's challenges to the

law, and on Oct. 6 the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

"The way the option was taken away was blatantly illegal," Orr said. "It was

done in a lame duck session after the veto session. In their disgust for losing

power, they played these tricks. Three readings are required by law, and they

had one reading. They didn't notify anybody."

Orr also argued in court that the elimination of straight-party voting would

disproportionately hurt Cook County, which has a much longer ballot than other

counties. There are 107 punches on the Cook County ballot this election.

"We fear that lines will discourage voting among everybody," Orr said. "This

has been done in our history to discourage black votes in Alabama in the 1880s.

It's not a perfect system, but if people choose to vote for a whole party it

just makes it more convenient."

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, Republican voters "won't be as put off by

the change. They're used to voting for the individual," said Dick Simpson, a

political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a

former Chicago alderman and congressional candidate.

"Any time you make people think about the races" it helps the challenger, said

Paul Green, a public policy professor at Governor's State University.

Voters could tire of punching for every race and stop voting before they reach

the end of the ballot, a phenomenon known as voter dropoff.

It probably won't affect high-profile elections, such as the governor's race.

"People are going to vote for who's on the front page," said 37th Ward Alderman

Percy Giles, who also is the ward's Democratic committeeman.

But it could hurt the 72 judges up for retention. They fall at the end of Cook

County's lengthy ballot, and their names and positions are often unfamiliar to

voters.

"I stop voting when I get to the judges because it's too much work," Chatham

voter Monique Cromwell said.

Judges must get 60 percent of the ballots cast for their race to be retained,

and both Democrats and Republicans are worried.

"The concern the president has is for the retention judges at the bottom of the

ballot," said Karyn Stancik, spokeswoman for Cook County Board President John

H. Stroger Jr.'s reelection campaign. "The concern is whether people will be

willing to stand in line when it's estimated it will take 10 to 15 minutes to

go down the ballot."

To ease the lines, Orr has been encouraging people to vote absentee. A state

law that limits voting time to five to 10 minutes will not be enforced.

Orr's office also bought 5,500 additional voting booths, according to Luis

Diaz-Perez, public information officer for the county clerk's office.

"The normal baseline was five booths per polling place, now there'll be a

minimum of eight, and depending on the precinct we'll go as high as 15,"

Diaz-Perez said.

Stroger's workers are telling voters to go to the polls during non-peak hours,

between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Chandler recommends 6 a.m.

While Democrats try to compensate for the loss of a key political tool, the

Republicans are attempting to capitalize on their new advantage.

"In previous elections, we had been forced to do a lot of campaigning in the

region to offset 'Punch 10,' " Cook County Republican Party Chairman Manny

Hoffman said.

This year, the Republicans spent their time and money on educating voters. They

redesigned their sample ballot and, for the first time, created a voter's guide

to the election, printing more than 500,000 copies. They mailed literature to

new registered Republican households. They distributed 400,000 mailers about

what judges to retain.

"We are doing everything we can to let people know what numbers to punch,"

Hoffman said.

Democrats say it won't make any difference.

"They can't win elections, so they decided to change the rules," said Cook

County Democratic Party Chairman Tom Lyons, who believes the Republicans may

have "outsmarted themselves in this election."

The Republicans disagree, of course, but they don't know what will happen

either.

"It's gonna be a test of how things work: the political parties, the

candidates, the election board," Hoffman said. "We'll see how well-educated the

voters are."

Medill News Service reporter J.J. Thompson contributed to this report.

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