Where is the line between raising awareness about community issues and campaigning on those issues? That was the question for the city council Tuesday night when Ward 3 write-in candidate Nadine Wright addressed the council during the public comment section of the meeting. Wright touched on some of the pressing issues in Ward 3, and asked the council to develop plans to address them.
Incumbent Ward 3 Alderman Doris Turner immediately cried foul. Turner said that this was the second time Wright had used the public comment portion of a city council meeting to make a campaign speech. At a pervious meeting, Wright announced she was running write-in campaign against Turner. Turner’s objections raised several issues for the council on what was appropriate for public comment, as well as what constituted illegal campaigning.
What can you say during public comment?
Generally, citizens can talk about almost any issue they want during the public comment portion of a city council meeting. In just the last year, citizens have used this opportunity to talk about a wide range of issues, from weeds along the railroad tracks, to proposals to deal with the homeless situation downtown. And although the council might prefer that speakers stick to local topics that the council could actually address, the council has generally given speakers wide latitude to talk on whatever they wish.
While the council reaffirmed the public’s right to comment, Alderman Donelan pointed out that there are still rules restricting electioneering. Some things, like handing out campaign literature during the meeting, are clearly not allowed. But the line between bringing up city issues and campaigning on city issues is often a gray area. The same points can be brought in ways that are within the rule or that would constitute campaigning. Even some aldermen have accused each other of campaigning rather than debating when discussing council matters.
Some members of the council thought allowing candidates to speak during the public comment was not a good idea. Setting a precedent of what is allowed is hard to roll back. Alderman DiCenso blamed Mayor Langfelder, rather than Wright, saying, “The offense is that it was allowed.” Langfelder knew before the meeting that Wright was planning to speak.
The Inspector General will review the speeches given by Wright to see if they violate any policies, and hopefully will give guidance to the council about what is and is not against the rules. You can watch Wright’s speech and the ensuing discussion in the player. Her remarks start at 1:25:00.
City Council hears final arguments, recommendations in Ward 2 recount
The Ward 2 aldermanic race might set a new record for closest election that wasn’t a tie. The first full count showed Gail Simpson leading Shawn Gregory by a single vote. Gregory challenged the result and asked for a recount. Then the race got closer. After the recount, the recommendation of the hearing officer was to declare Simpson the winner by not one vote, but 0.361 votes.
During the recount, all of the ballots were inspected again. That further inspection revealed that some of the ballots had problems. A ballot that is not filled out correctly can be disqualified. One had two colors of ink, one was damaged and had to be reconstructed, and another had two candidates marked. These ballots were resolved on an individual basis.
But there were two sets of ballots that needed further discussion. The first were ballots where the election judge marked them in the wrong place. There is a line where the judge should put their initials so the tabulators know it is a valid ballot. Three ballots, all from the same judge, had marks near, but not on, the provided line. Two of them were for Gregory. They were not counted in the hearing officer’s recommendation.
Another group of ballots came from the Mary Bryant Home. The Mary Bryant Home is a community for the blind and visually impaired. Due to their conditions, many of these voters required assistance in filling out their ballots. To protect the integrity of the vote, especially with vulnerable populations, there are affidavits that must be filled out by the voter and the assistant to make the votes valid. For thirteen ballots, this did not happen.
However, the affidavits do not match specific ballots. To ensure voter privacy, the ballot cannot be directly tied to a specific voter. When the thirteen ballots were thrown out, each candidate had a proportional reduction in their count based on how well they did in each precinct. In the end, Simpson lost 4.278 votes, but Gregory lost just 2.639 votes. That closed the margin, but did not eliminate Simpson’s lead.
The real debate hinges on how comparable council members think these two types of errors are. John Mehlick, the hearing officer for the recount, considered both errors equally disqualifying. Although he stressed that he did not want to throw out any votes, he pointed out instructions were not followed on both. During his remarks to the council, Mehlick stressed that the council should demand “excellence” from its election judges and administrators.
Not everyone agreed with that logic. Questions from several aldermen suggested that they found the initials to be a far less serious breach of protocol than those on the affidavits. Others argued that disqualifying votes due to errors from election officials was not something they wanted to do, and argued both sets of ballots should be included.
The council’s decision
There are three likely outcomes the council could decide on. If both sets of ballots are eliminated, then Simpson wins. If both sets of ballots are kept, Simpson would still win. And if the affidavits are thrown out, but the initialed ballots are kept, then Gregory wins.
The choice is unenviable. Most of the time, standards are set without knowing how it will impact an election. Today, the council knows it is not just setting a standard to follow, it is also picking winners and losers in a democratic election. The Simpson team asked Alderwoman Turner to recuse herself due to her party’s endorsement of Gregory during the campaign. Turner agreed to this request, saying that if her stepping back would help the post-decision healing process in the community, then she would do so.
The rest of the council did not come to an agreement Tuesday night. Aldermen Redpath, Fulgenzi, Proctor, DiCenso, and Hanauer moved to accept the hearing officer’s recommendation, and declare Simpson the winner. Aldermen McMenamin, Conley, and Donelan, as well as Mayor Langfelder voted against, which prevented the motion from passing. Any motion will take 6 affirmative votes to pass.
The council will reconvene Thursday night to continue their discussion of the issue and come to an acceptable agreement. You can watch their full discussion in the player above, and read all of the documents from the recount here.
Opinion: Gregory wins by two
Springfield Daily does not endorse candidates. We have always held that it is our job to make information available to the public, and for voters to make up their own minds. But the situation in Ward 2 is no longer an election. All of the votes were cast months ago. Now, it is a question over procedure, and deciding which votes should be counted.
It is an unenviable decision. One of best elements of voting is the final decision is clear-cut. All of the ballots are counted, and whoever has the most wins. No one wants to overrule the will of the voters and declare one candidate the winner. Yet that is the decision that is now before the city council.
There are two sets of ballots still in question, and they will determine the final outcome. The first are two ballots where the election judge’s initials is not on the line. Because ballots must be properly initialed to be valid, two votes for Shawn Gregory were thrown out.
The other set is more complicated. Voters at The Mary Bryant Home, a home for blind and visually impaired individuals, and other areas used assistants to fill out their ballots. These ballots needed to be supported by affidavits that affirm the individuals helping fill out the ballots are doing so solely to help individuals who are unable to vote without assistance. There are serious shortcomings in how the affidavits were filled out, resulting in 13 ballots being invalidated. After calculating the relative vote totals in each precinct, Simpson lost 4.3 votes and Gregory lost 2.6 votes.
Based on the recommendation of John Mehlick, the hearing officer for the recount, Simpson should be declared the winner by a margin of 0.361 of a vote. This final count of 459.7219 to 459.3609 does not include the two votes with the misplaced initials, or those with bad affidavits. Mehlick argued that we must demand excellence from our election officials, and that both errors are invalidating.
Apples to apples?
Treating both situations as equivalent would be a mistake. Based on the arguments presented both in writing and before the city council Tuesday night, it is clear there are significant difference between the two situations.
The ballots that were initialed by the judge have every element necessary for the ballot to be considered valid. Many ballots were invalidated because they lacked any initials. But for these two, the only element in question was the placement of the judge’s initials. No one is disputing that the initials are those of a legitimate election judge. Although it makes intuitive sense that the initials be on the provided line, and the County Clerk teaches its election judges to initial on the line, there is no statutory requirement that the initials be on that line. And for both ballots in question, the initials are only a few inches away from the line.
The ballots with affidavits, however, are missing many key elements that make a ballot valid. Signatures are not only on the wrong lines, there are required signatures that are totally absent. There is no question that these ballots would be invalid under any circumstances due to these deficiencies.
Failing to properly fill these documents out is made worse by the fact these ballots were filled out by assistants. People with disabilities should be allowed to vote, even if they need assistance. But because the right to vote is so precious, and the impact of a single vote is so great, these assistants must be held to an even higher standard than the average election official. How can we trust a person filled out the ballot correctly if they did not fill out the accompanying affidavit correctly?
It’s about the voters
I have great respect for all four candidates who ran in Ward 2, but that is not relevant to this discussion. In the end, this cannot be about who should be the alderman for Ward 2. It is regrettable that anyone besides the voters in Ward 2 will decide the outcome. And no one wants to invalidate any votes, especially votes from people with disabilities. But there are still rules, and the rules need to be enforced.
People make mistakes in filling out their ballots, and that has consequences. Some people vote for too many candidates. Some people fail to get their ballots initialed by an election judge at all. And tragically, 13 people trusted the wrong person to assist them in filling out their ballots and affidavits. None of those votes can or should be counted.
When all of the evidence is looked at, and all the arguments are heard, Shawn Gregory is entitled to those two additional votes, and to become Ward 2 alderman.
You can watch the discussion from Tuesday in the video at the top of this article, and read all of the documents from the recount here.
Recount planned for Ward 2
Voters in Ward 2 proved the old adage that every vote matters. On election night, it looked like Shawn Gregory had clinched the Ward 2 aldermanic race by one vote. But after all of the votes were tallied, his opponent Gail Simpson was certified as the winner; also by just one vote. With such a narrow margin, a challenge was almost inevitable.
At a special meeting of the city council, a formal recount was approved. Recounts are required from time to time, and so Springfield does have some experience with them. But setting up all of the specifics for the recount will take some time. At the June 4th meeting, the City Council will approve the recount plan and set a date for when it will happen.
While conceptually simple, a recount is a serious undertaking. It is more than just the County Clerk going back to the ballot boxes and tallying the votes again. Careful steps have to be taken to ensure the integrity of the vote. Lawyers for both candidates will be present to go through each ballot to determine how they should be counted. There will also be impartial observers, but these have yet to be selected.
In the mean time, Gail Simpson will be seated as Ward 2 alderman. The inauguration is Wednesday, May 22nd, and will take place at UIS’ Sangamon Auditorium. She will be the acting alderman for the ward at least until the recount is completed.
You can watch the council’s full discussion in the player.