Metro-East News

Challenged absentee votes may lead to civil rights investigation

Jeffrey Birge sits with his son Joxian Birge, 1, while speaking about his absentee vote being questioned in the Cahokia mayorial election.
Jeffrey Birge sits with his son Joxian Birge, 1, while speaking about his absentee vote being questioned in the Cahokia mayorial election. News-Democrat

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly has asked federal and state civil rights officials to review a recent electioneering tactic that he said had the potential to block eligible citizens, mostly black, from voting.

According to St. Clair County Clerk Tom Holbrook, poll watchers for mayoral candidate Gary Cornwell claimed that absentee ballots were improperly cast by more than 100 voters who were not listed on village occupancy permits at addresses where they said they lived. These claims targeted mostly black voters who obtained their absentee ballots from Cornwell’s opponent, Curtis McCall, Jr.

Based on these objections, Holbrook mailed out notices to let voters know that their votes wouldn’t be counted unless they could prove they lived at their stated voting address. The notices included a hotline number where voters could all if they could disprove the objection. Based on the hotline calls, Holbrook’s office sent a sheriff’s deputy to each address in question to find the voter and verify whether the person lived at the address.

Of the 106 absentee ballots challenged based on a claim that the voter’s name was not on an occupancy permit, 102 were counted.

Kelly said paperwork for the occupancy permit challenges were sent to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Illinois attorney general’s office to investigate whether these objections constituted a suppression of the black vote.

“I'm not looking at anyone for a criminal charge at this time,” Kelly said, referring to the practice of basing widespread voting challenges on a community’s occupancy ordinance. “My concern is the discrimination potential in the way the process works. ... We have to make every effort to ensure there is no discrimination in voting either intentional or unintentional because the right is so fundamental. If democracy was a religion, voting would be the most important sacrament.”

Spokesmen for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Illinois Attorney General office did not respond to requests for comment.

According to records provided under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, at least 135 occupancy permit and other residency challenges were filed by poll watchers for incumbent Cornwell, who lost the mayor's job last month to McCall, a teacher in Cahokia School District 187 and son of Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr. McCall Jr., is the village's first African-American mayor. McCall received 2,047 votes to Cornwell’s 1,636.

Of the total of voters challenged based on residency, 102 were black, information from the County Clerk's office showed.

Jeffrey Birge, who lives at 146 St. James Lane in Cahokia, had his vote challenged. A poll watcher said neither Birge nor his fiance’, Ashanti Edwards, were listed on the occupancy permit for that address. Birge and Edwards, who are black, have lived at the home for three years. Birge said this was the first time his vote had ever been challenged.

“I was a little freaked out when we got the letter,” Birge said. “I thought they were saying I had done something wrong or vote fraud or something.”

After a phone call to Holbrook’s office and a visit from a deputy sheriff, he and his fiance’s votes were counted.

Cahokia requires residents to obtain an occupancy permit before you can move into a residence. It also requires when people move into or out of the home that the permit be amended. Village occupancy permit records provided to a reporter by Fred Cornwell, Gary Cornwell’s father, showed that except in a few cases, the challenged voters' names were not on the permits.

But investigations by Holbrook’s office, which involved sheriff's deputies going to the addresses in question, confirmed that most of the voters lived there, Kelly said.

Fred Cornwell, who helped manage his son’s campaign, said there was no intent to deprive anyone of their right to vote. Fred Cornwell, the former longtime director of the village department of public works, said the intent of his son's poll watchers was to make sure state election law residency requirements were followed.

In the April 7 mayoral election, 1,558 absentee ballots were cast — more than twice the absentee tally in the 2011 mayoral village election.

View Cahokia mayor vote fraud probe in a full screen map

“They can do anything they want with these absentee ballots. They can get anybody elected,” Fred Cornwell said. “We beat them on the ground. Without these absentees, Gary would have been a galloping winner.”

Concern about the misuse of absentee ballots was evident on the Cornwell side. In a letter dated Feb. 16, Gary Cornwell asked Kelly, the county’s top prosecutor, for assistance in ensuring a fair election.

“We believe that a large number of new registrations have taken place in recent years in relation to people living in surrounding communities who are being enticed to temporarily register at addresses in Cahokia where they do not live...” Fred Cornwell said there was no response to his son's letter.

Jerry Nichols, a Cahokia village board trustee and committeeman in Precinct 20, said he believed there was an effort by the Democratic-controlled St. Clair County Board to assist McCall Jr. in the election. This occurred when the board, according to Nichols, voted to move the polling place in Nichols’ precinct to VFW Post 1699 on Water Street, which is also the location of the McCall Team's political headquarters.

“There was no reason for this except politics,” said Nichols.

Shontae S. Holmes voted absentee, she said, because she works and didn't have time to get to a polling place. She later received a notice in the mail that her vote was being challenged.

“It's real ignorant,” said Holmes, who lives in a mostly black neighborhood where scores of votes were questioned by the former mayor's poll watchers. “This is the only election where my vote has been challenged. I have lived here seven years or more. If I don't have an occupancy permit, who is paying the rent? I feel like because an African-American ran for mayor, they went out and challenged the black vote.”

According to a copy of an occupancy permit issued in 2009 for the address, Holmes is not listed as living there, but four members of another family are.

It was Dawn Crisp's first election in Cahokia. She bought her house on St. John Drive last year. She paid her property taxes, county records show. She also received an owner-occupied tax exemption that reduced her property taxes because she lived in the house.

Yet, like Holmes, she received a notice that her vote was being challenged and responded to the County Clerk's hotline. Despite the property records, her absentee vote was challenged by a poll watcher for Cornwell who claimed that her property was vacant.

“It's just really disappointing that nowadays someone would resort to such a thing and lie about public records to knock out votes. I'm just numb," Crisp said.

Lentoli Traylor, 21, of 21 St. Andrews Drive in Cahokia, wasn’t surprised when he received a notice letting him know that his vote was being challenged. He called the number and spoke to a sheriff’s deputy who showed up at his door.

“They wanted to take my vote away talking about how I didn’t live here,” he said.

Traylor’s vote was eventually counted but he didn’t know that until reporters told him.

“Nope. Nope. I didn’t get no letter in the mail talking about that my vote was reassessed and counted. … I didn’t know, until now,” Traylor said.

According to a challenge to Mary W. Edwards’ absentee ballot, Edwards was deceased. The 87-year-old woman said of the mailed notice she received, "I was pretty upset to get that. My daughter said to call them and see if I made a mistake when I filled out the ballot so I wouldn't do it again."

But the error was in the challenge. The deceased person at Edwards' home was her husband, she said.

“I was told that it was all a mistake, that I should never have been sent that letter,” Edwards said. “I thought I'd better find out what happened because they encourage us to vote because that's the only voice we have.”

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570. Follow her on Twitter: @bhundsdorfer.

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