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In 1992, a young do-gooder, new to Chicago, was put in charge of a campaign to register 150,000 black voters. He didn’t know anything about politics, so he went out to the West Side to visit an alderman who’d run a voter registration drive.
“You’ve been successful,” the young man said.
“The reason I’m so successful is that I reimburse them for expenses,” the alderman told him. “A dollar a vote.”
The young man didn’t like the idea of paying for signatures. In spite of the alderman’s advice, he was adamant that he wasn’t going to buy those names, Chicago-style. But the kid needed the old man’s operation to sign up voters on the West Side, so he worked out an accounting trick that allowed him to look honest while still acknowledging the realities of inner-city politics. The registrars were paid “expenses” for car fare and lunch. Inevitably, those expenses worked out to a dollar a voter.
That was Barack Obama’s introduction to Chicago politics. His effort, which went by the name Project Vote!, met its goals in part because Obama paid his registrars.
Scott Lee Cohen is doing the same thing to collect the 25,000 signatures he needs to get his name on the ballot for governor. According to Medill Reports, Cohen is hiring petition circulators at one of his pawn shops, and paying them a dollar a signature. (Apparently, the rate hasn’t gone up in the last 20 years.) For that kind of money, he’s mostly getting street people. One circulator quit because he objected to working alongside “junkies and all kind of stuff. They dirty and smell like a bum. Really, really bad.”
When Obama took over Project Vote!, he was an outsider to Chicago politics, and he was leading a campaign that many traditional Democrats found threatening: increasing the size of the black electorate. Obama didn’t have his own machine, so he had to rent one, using seed money from a sugar daddy in Washington, D.C. Cohen is even more of an outsider -- he’s a pariah -- so it’s no surprise to see him paying for signatures.
Don’t be concerned unless you see dirty, smelly bums leaving the polling places on Election Day, drinking from bottles of muscatel. Then you’ll know Cohen is observing a less savory Chicago tradition: paying for votes.