Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Bill Brady and the Spectre of Short Pencil Louie

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Bill Brady and the Spectre of Short Pencil Louie
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Short Pencil Louie must be back in town.

Short Pencil Louie was a legendary Chicago precinct captain who was once caught on film erasing votes for an opposing candidates and penciling in votes on his own.

At this weekend’s Right Nation 2010, Bill Brady raised the specter of Short Pencil Louie as he warned his supporters that a lead in the polls can be erased by Chicago precinct captains.

“We’re doing well in the polls, but we want you to think we’re down,” Brady said. “There’s one city that might steal four or five points from me on the night before the election ... We need your help.”

Now, I realize that alienating the state’s largest city is part of Brady’s campaign strategy -- a strategy that seems to be working so far. But we’re long past the days when precinct captains can rub out votes, or toss ballot boxes in the Chicago River. Electronic voting makes election fraud tougher, at least at the precinct level. A machine scans and counts every ballot, then transmits the results to the Board of Elections at the end of the day. Short Pencil Louie would have to be Hacker Louie to change the results -- or he'd need to be in cahoots with a company like Premier Election Systems, formerly known as Diebold, maker of notoriously unreliable e-voting machines. But precinct captains aren’t that smart. If they were, they wouldn’t have to be precinct captains.

It’s also worth noting that the Republican Party resisted this effort to replace the Machine with a machine. After the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush’s campaign was aided by voter errors on Palm Beach County, Florida’s butterfly ballot, Cook County Democrats installed ballot-counting machines that would kick back overvotes and undervotes. In some inner-city precincts, the machines cut the error rate from 20 percent to 2 percent. That made state Sen. Kirk Dillard so nervous he introduced a bill to ban the new system. He said he didn’t want Short Pencil Louie ordering voters back into the booth to complete their ballots, right down to Circuit Court Judge.

State Sen. Barack Obama countered with his own bill allowing counties to kick back undervotes.

“The principal reason is partisanship," Obama told the Chicago Reader. “Privately I don’t think any of the Republican legislators would deny that. Why would they want to encourage an additional 10 percent in Cook County? That’s a direct blow against them in statewide races.”

The issue was settled by a court decision allowing Cook County to use its ballot-checking software. So Brady is being disingenuous when he accuses the Democrats of trying to cook the numbers in Cook County.

Besides, governor is the last office Democrats would steal votes for. Mayor Daley and Michael Madigan don’t want to compete for power with a Democratic governor. That’s why Republicans won six times in a row, and why a Republican will win again this year.

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