High Number of Voting Irregularities Leads to Federal Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of Illinois Election Process

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
January 11, 2001 12:00 am

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CHICAGO — The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today asked a federal judge to protect “the fundamental right to vote” for all persons, saying that inequalities, highlighted by the use of the error-ridden punch card voting system in many areas of the state, resulted in a disproportionate number of ballots from precincts with high racial minority populations going uncounted in the recent election.

“The right to vote is the most fundamental right in our democracy,” said Harvey Grossman, Legal Director for the ACLU of Illinois. “Every other privilege of citizenship flows from that right.”

Today’s challenge to the Illinois election system for violating the Voting Rights Act, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, follows the release of official results in Chicago demonstrating that more than 70,000 (less than seven percent) legally cast ballots were not counted.

The lawsuit filed today on behalf of three African Americans who reside and vote in Chicago is directed against the State Board of Elections, the state body responsible for overseeing all elections in the State of Illinois, and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

“The state has an obligation to insure that all voters are treated equally,” Grossman said. “In Illinois, voters in punch card districts, and African Americans in particular, are subjected to a substantially higher risk than other voters of not having their vote counted. The system must be fixed.”

The lawsuit asks the Chicago federal court to enter a permanent injunction prohibiting the State Board of Elections and the Chicago Board of Election from conducting future elections using the present punch card system and without ensuring that all counties have the authority to use – and implement – systems that notify voters of ballot errors while those errors can still be corrected.

In Illinois, the punch card voting systems operating in some voting districts – the subject of recent litigation in the states of Florida and Georgia – have substantially higher error rates in recording, counting and tabulating votes when compared to optical scanning voting systems.

The percentage of ballots cast and not counted is significantly higher in precincts predominantly populated by African Americans. An analysis of election results appearing in the December 27, 2000 edition of the Washington Post found that the racial composition of voting precincts in Chicago dramatically affected the percentage of votes disqualified.

The Washington Post analysis found that in those Cook County precincts where the population was comprised of less than 30 percent persons of color, the percentage of uncounted ballots averaged just 4.9 percent. In those precincts where racial minorities comprised more than 90 percent of the voting population, the percentage of uncounted ballots exceeds nine percent.

“It is not a mere coincidence that the rate of uncounted votes increases in minority communities,” said Mr. Timuel Black, a Chicago resident and a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It appears that persons of color and the poor are systematically disenfranchised under the current voting process.”

Today’s lawsuit also charges that the state legislature possesses the ability to correct the inequities in the state election law, but failed to take steps to ensure that African Americans have an equal right to vote.

State law allows counties that employ optically scanned ballots to use technology that notifies voters of a ballot error. These systems make certain that a vote is valid before the voter leaves a local polling location. If a problem occurs with the ballot, the voter can request a replacement and vote again before the ballot is submitted to election officials.

The use of these systems for notifying voters of ballot errors is highly effective, as proved in DeKalb and McHenry Counties, both of which use such systems to assist their voters. The ballot disqualification rate in those counties in the 2000 general election was less than one-half of one percent.

The punch card ballot systems used in Chicago and many other counties across the State of Illinois are technologically capable of notifying voters of errors. Current state law, however, does not allow this feature to be used on punch card systems, even while specifically allowing voter error notification with optical scanning voting systems.

Efforts to correct this disparity in law have been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly. The Illinois House twice approved the legislation allowing the use of such systems. City of Chicago officials already have purchased the necessary equipment and software to make it possible to notify voters of any ballot errors. However, the Illinois State Senate failed to hold a vote on the legislation on either occasion. Even after the results of the 2000 election became public, one state senate spokesperson suggested there was no “rush” to address the legislation.

“I cherish the right to vote,” said Vinni Hall, the third named plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I always have viewed voting as the most important duty I perform as a citizen. Black people have struggled for the right to vote and it should not be denied whether by overt vices like poll taxes, or through less obvious devices like inaccurate voting systems or procedures allowing only some voters to correct errors in their ballots.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs include Harvey Grossman, Pamela Sumners and Adam Schwartz of the ACLU of Illinois, Laughlin McDonald of the National American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, William T. Barker of the Chicago law firm Sonneschein, Nath and Rosenthal and Ellen Douglass of Chicago.

To view releases on litigation from the 2000 presidential election in the states of Georgia and Florida, where the inadequacy of punch card voting systems is also being challenged, go to archive.aclu.org/news/2001/n010501a.html and archive.aclu.org/news/2001/n011001b.html.

The legal complaint is online at http://archive.aclu.org/court/black.pdf

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