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Just Stupid Enough to Be True

A couple of the "retards" who voted with magic pens should be thanked, not ridiculed.



The bizarre election-day breakdown that made Chicago a worldwide laughingstock started a little after 6 AM on February 5, when Angela Burkhardt went to her polling place in the 42nd precinct of the 49th Ward, a firehouse at 1723 W. Greenleaf.

An election judge gave her a ballot and a pen, but when Burkhardt tried to use it the pen made no mark. When she asked him for another, he told her she didn’t need one. And then he uttered the words that will live on in infamy. As Burkhardt recalls it: “He said, ‘It’s a magic pen’—his words exactly—‘that uses invisible ink.’”

Burkhardt says she looked at her blank ballot, then looked back at the judge, incredulous. Was this some kind of joke? “He said that they had been told by authorities that these were magic pens,” she says. “And he insisted the voting machines would read the marks even though the ink was invisible.”

To prove his point, she says, the judge fed her ballot into the counting machine, but it was spit back out, indicating that it hadn’t been properly marked. Using a key, the judge manually overrode it, opening the machine and sticking her ballot inside. “See?” he said. “It works.”

Burkhardt protested that nothing was certain except that the machine had taken the ballot. There was no evidence it had recorded her vote.

The judge insisted that it had, and Burkhardt didn’t bother to argue. Instead, she left and called the Chicago Board of Elections. The woman who answered heard her out and told her to call technical assistance. Burkhardt figured the polling place ought to do that, so she returned to the firehouse and passed this advice on to the judge. He got huffy, telling her that it wasn’t her business to tell him what to do—he was the election judge, after all.

So Burkhardt called technical assistance herself, only to find the line busy. She tried the board of elections again. This time she talked to an operator who took down her information but told Burkhardt not to follow up with more calls—it wasn’t her responsibility.

Worried that the matter would be swept under the carpet, Burkhardt nevertheless called the board of elections a third time and got a guy named Jeff, who assured her he’d do something about the situation.

By then more than an hour had passed and it was well after 7 AM. That’s when Burkhardt met Amy Carlton, who was also trying to vote. “The pen didn’t work, so I went to an election judge—it was one of the two Republican judges. I didn’t get his name,” Carlton says. “He said, ‘It’s OK. It’s invisible ink and the scanner will read it.’” He then added an assurance he hadn’t offered Burkhardt: “He said, ‘We’ve been trained not to use the [regular] pens. You don’t have to worry,’” says Carlton.

Burkhardt and Carlton exchanged numbers and “agreed to bother people until we got some answers,” as Carlton later wrote on her blog, Then Carlton walked over to the office of 49th Ward Democratic committeeman David Fagus. “I felt he should know about this,” she says.

To her astonishment, she says, Fagus and one of his assistants confirmed the story. “A man behind the front desk said, “‘Oh yeah, invisible ink. That’s what they’re using this year,’” says Carlton. “And Fagus, who had come out of his office by now, said, ‘Oh yes, they’re using invisible ink.’”

Next Carlton called 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore, figuring he should know what was going on. She didn’t reach Moore, but she talked to one of his staffers, who told her that the state’s attorney’s office was looking into the matter.

By about 8 AM, election board investigators were on the scene. Sure enough, they found, the so-called magic pens were neither magic nor pens. They were styluses, intended for voters using touch screens. “They were using a plastic stylus that had no ink and the explanation was it used invisible ink—I don’t know how they made that leap of logic,” says board of elections spokesman James Allen. “You can’t find the word invisible in our election judge handbook—maybe because it’s written in invisible ink.”

The stylus was meant to combat what they call the “fat finger problem,” Allen says. “That’s where a voter inadvertently touches more than one candidate’s name when he votes. Trying to cure one problem, we wound up with another.”

The investigators opened the ballot-counting machine and removed 20 unmarked ballots. Then they tracked down all 20 would-be voters and notified them that they needed to vote again—this time using a real pen. According to Allen, at least 13 voters returned.

Burkhardt and Carlton were among them, but if they thought that would be the end of it, they were mistaken. In their determination to press their case, both women had called local media. The Sun-Times and the Tribune ran stories, the Trib’s featuring a quote from Carlton she would come to regret: “I’m incredibly angry and I feel so dumb. And I’m not a dumb person.”

As news of the magic pens spread, bloggers picked up the story and soon were having a field day cracking wise about yet another Windy City election-day absurdity. Many wondered how the voters could have been so clueless as to accept the election judge’s invisible ink explanation. Some commenters riffed on Carlton’s “dumb” quote; Wonkette labeled her a “retard.”

In retrospect, it’s hard to understand why anyone would pick on Carlton—after all, she and Burkhardt went out of their way to expose the fiasco. On her blog, Carlton was eloquent in her own defense, writing, “In a country where bringing a full bottle of shampoo onto an airplane makes you a terror suspect, is it really all that far-fetched that some election official might have decided we need to make ballots extra private and unreadable except to machines? Or that maybe someone from the invisible ink industry made huge donations to the Daley campaign? (That’s how we ended up with all the wrought-iron fences, right?) That’s what I meant when I told the Sun-Times that magic pens sounded just stupid enough to be true.”

Allen and Fagus also point out that it’s hard for people to question authority figures—especially when they’re in a hurry to vote and get to work.

For his part, Fagus says, he sorted through the matter to see what went wrong. “There were five judges in the polling place—three Democrats and two Republicans,” he says. “Four had worked before, one had not.”

As for the story about the invisible ink and the magic pen, it wasn’t something the judges picked up from him, Fagus says. Furthermore, he insists he never told Carlton anything about invisible ink when she came to his office—not that he wants to get into a squabble with her. “I think that [Carlton] did the right thing. She shouldn’t be slammed,” says Fagus. “But I didn’t say anything like that. I saw she was animated. She was really concerned that her vote would count, as I can understand.”

Fagus says he figures an ignorant election judge got carried away. “I think what it was—they were determined to be right,” says Fagus. “It’s a lot of power trip going on. It goes to their heads. As I understand, it was one judge who kept insisting the ink was invisible.”

I’ve talked to two of the five judges on duty that day—the other three didn’t return calls. “I’m not really sure what happened,” says Jennifer Osagie, a Republican election judge. “It was a miscommunication. I don’t think they were trying to mislead anyone.”

James Wilson, a Democratic election judge, said he was tending to the touch screens for most of the day. “But I heard the other judge talking about the magic pens after it was all over,” he says. “They thought you just rubbed the pen across the ballot and the mark came up. I asked one of the judges, ‘When did that come up?’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it—we took care of it.’”

Wilson says this was his fourth stint as an election judge, and his first one at this polling place. “I’ve heard quite a few stories from other election judges,” he says. “Things happen, man.”

I also contacted Russell Varner, the Republican election judge who apparently told Carlton and Burkhardt the pens were magic (he was the only male Republican election judge in the precinct that day). When I started to ask questions, he said, “We’re having a bad reception.” Then the phone went dead. I’ve left several messages, but he hasn’t called back.

The story also illustrates the diminish­ing role of a ward committeeman—at least in Fagus’s case. Traditionally, picking election judges was one of the job’s main perks. In some wards Democratic committeemen not only handpick the Democratic election judges, they also select the Republican ones from a list of local ward heelers or precinct captains looking to get on the payroll.

But Fagus says he didn’t appoint any of the judges in the 42nd precinct—he doesn’t even know their names. And Wilson said when he called Fagus about getting appointed as a judge, Fagus didn’t return his calls. He wound up getting the gig, which pays $150, from the board of elections. Osagie, a high school senior, got the job by participating in the Mikva Project, a program intended to introduce Chicago teenagers to politics. It was, she says, quite an introduction.

“My predecessor [Tom Leach] told me there would be things like this,” says Allen. “Before he left, Tom warned that there will be something new and crazy every single election. Once again, Tom was right.”

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