Tens of thousands of voters mistakenly cast ballots for two Cook County sheriff’s candidates thrown out of the race

As officials work to certify the final vote total for the June 28 primary election ahead of next week’s deadline, tens of thousands of votes cast in the Democratic race for Cook County sheriff won’t be counted because of last-minute ballot changes and miscommunication by election authorities.

Many voters in Chicago who cast ballots at early voting sites or their home precincts likely weren’t informed that two of the four sheriff candidates, Carmen Navarro Gercone and LaTonya Ruffin, had been removed from the ballot weeks before the primary as a result of separate appellate court rulings.

Election authorities had been ordered to post notices that the two candidates had been stricken from the race since their names remained on the ballot because the court rulings came so late. But more than a dozen Chicago election judges contacted by Injustice Watch said notices hadn’t been posted in their precincts because no one with the city’s Board of Elections had instructed them to do so. Compounding the problem, hundreds of election workers resigned in the days before and on the day of the primary, an elections board official said.

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The mix-up almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome of the sheriff’s race. Incumbent Sheriff Tom Dart won handily, though his one remaining challenger, Chicago Police Sgt. Noland Rivera, claimed a politically motivated conspiracy without offering evidence.

The legal challenges to Gercone’s and Ruffin’s ballot eligibility delayed the printing of ballots and the start of early voting in Chicago by almost two weeks. County election officials bounced Gercone from the ballot for failing to complete a law enforcement training course required by the state’s SAFE-T Act that took effect Jan. 1. Ruffin ran afoul of rules by filing to run under a different last name than she used on her voter registration.

After both candidates challenged their removals in the Cook County Circuit Court, separate judges ruled in their favor. However, when their challengers appealed those rulings, separate appellate judges reaffirmed the elections board’s decisions to remove Ruffin and Gercone. Those rulings came May 31 and June 8.

By then, however, ballots had been printed and electronic touch screens programmed, and it was too late to make changes, according to the Chicago Board of Elections and the Cook County clerk’s office, which oversees elections in the suburbs. The appellate court, therefore, ordered election authorities to post notices inside every polling place and voting booth that votes for Ruffin and Gercone would not be counted. All election judges were to be instructed to “inform each voter upon check-in” about the changes to the ballot. The notices were also sent to voters who requested mail-in ballots.

Max Bever, spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Elections told Injustice Watch that the notices were printed out and distributed to the “key judges” in charge of opening and closing each of the city’s 1,043 precinct polling places. Bever also said every election judge was sent a text message at 5 a.m. on the day of the primary with a reminder about the sheriff’s race.

But most of the Chicago election judges contacted by Injustice Watch said they never received such a message and didn’t hear anything about notifying voters about the disqualified candidates in the sheriff’s race. Some said they found notices among the Election Day materials provided by the Board of Elections but hadn’t been told by higher-ups what to do with them.

In addition to the lapse in communication, Chicago polling places were severely understaffed, as 3,275 judges — nearly 35% of the elections board’s expected workforce of almost 9,500 — resigned in the days leading up to the election or didn’t show up that morning, according to Bever. Some polling places had just one judge working the entire day, while at some other sites, election workers received little guidance from key judges, election judges told Injustice Watch.

Maya Dukmasova

Voters waiting to cast their ballots for this year’s primary election at a Chicago Public Library branch in Chicago on June 28, 2022.

The same problems with the sheriff’s race don’t appear to have happened in suburban Cook County polling places. Several election judges who worked in suburban precincts told Injustice Watch that they were notified by the Cook County clerk’s office about the ballot changes, and that voters received a slip with the court-ordered notice printed on it when they checked in at their polling places.

Because Gercone and Ruffin were disqualified from the sheriff’s race, election authorities said they were legally barred from publicly reporting how many votes were cast for them. But comparing the vote total in Chicago of the sheriff’s race — 196,545 — to the contest that immediately preceded it on the ballot, Cook County board president — 287,320 — suggests more than 90,000 votes appear to have been cast for Gercone or Ruffin.

Even if all those votes had gone to Rivera, Dart’s lone challenger, he still would have fallen short of victory, though. In Chicago, Dart’s vote totaled 166,705, nearly 85%, while Rivera was barely approaching 30,000 votes. Countywide, Dart led with a commanding 86% of the vote, the latest results show.

Still, Rivera said the mix-up cost him a victory. If voters had properly been notified that it was only a two-man race or if the ballots contained only his and Dart’s names, he would have had “more than a fair shot of winning the election,” he told Injustice Watch. “When you have two people on the ballot as opposed to four, it certainly makes a difference.”

Rivera, who said he didn’t have the money to finance a challenge to the results in court, maintained that the election authorities’ handling of the race has shaken his faith in their integrity and independence.

“I believe it was intentional and calculated to confuse voters,” he said. “I don’t think [election authorities] followed the judges’ orders the way they should have.”

Rivera said the Chicago Board of Elections and Cook County clerk’s office should have reprinted the ballots after the final June 9 court ruling or better communicated the changes to the public. He attributed the lapses in notifying voters to political allegiances that Dart has with Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough and Board President Toni Preckwinkle, though neither of them oversee the Chicago Board of Elections. “I’m confident that they wanted to keep Dart in office,” he said.

Rivera’s campaign attorney, Ed Mullen, told Injustice Watch that mounting a court challenge to the results would be not just expensive but “extraordinarily difficult” because “courts see the finality of elections as something important, and it’s really difficult to have a court either overturn an election or have there be a new one.” It is particularly difficult when a candidate can’t clearly prove that the outcome would be altered, according to Mullen and two other election attorneys who spoke with Injustice Watch.

But Mullen said it still matters that some 90,000 votes may have been thrown out without voters’ knowledge, not just from an election integrity standpoint but for Dart’s fifth term in office.

“If you want to put pressure on the sheriff’s office to change the way they do things, having a record of the anti-sheriff vote is important,” Mullen said. “If they wanted to vote against the sheriff, the only vote they had that counted was Noland, and a lot of people didn’t know that.”

Dart’s campaign declined to comment.

Bever could only speculate about what led so many election judges to resign so close to the election. The possibilities ranged from the minimal $230 paycheck and fears of Covid-19 infections to missing out on a nice summer day. “Possibly it being in June, people wake up and say, ‘I’m not interested in this anymore,’” he said.

Bever could not explain why more than a dozen election judges might not have received text reminders on the morning of the primary about the changes to the sheriff’s race, though he said office data showed that 5,450 of the 6,522 texts sent out to judges were indeed delivered.

“The Chicago Board of Elections is working to improve its communications to election judges on Election Day and for the weeks leading up to it, including providing more frequent emails, calls, and texts about important voter information and ballot changes,” Bever wrote in an emailed statement. “The board is also looking forward to restarting in-person election judge training for the Nov. 8 general election, which allows for more substantial discussion between board staff and election judges, as well as addressing more questions and concerns ahead of Election Day.”

Despite Rivera’s contention that the miscommunications were intentional and politically motivated, veteran Cook County election observers noted that these kinds of mix-ups aren’t unusual or a sign of systemic dysfunction in the bureaucracies charged with overseeing local elections.

“The Chicago Board of Elections and the clerk’s office are two offices with a lot of integrity,” said Michael Dorf, an election lawyer who did not work with any of the sheriff’s candidates this election. “There are mistakes in every election, and these are mistakes which don’t rise to conspiracy or fraud. … It would be wonderful if elections were all error-free, but that just doesn’t happen.”

Election officials, who were required by law to wait until July 12 to receive all mail-in ballots postmarked by the day of the primary, are scheduled to issue a final vote count for the election July 19.