City Election Board Supervisor Fired Over Absentee-Ballot Handling | NBC Chicago
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City Election Board Supervisor Fired Over Absentee-Ballot Handling

Sheri M. Bowen was terminated a week after the election for "gross dereliction" of duty

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    A supervisor fired by the Chicago election board was “terminated for gross dereliction” of duty in the wake of problems with absentee ballots that were discovered as votes were being tallied in the hotly contested race for Illinois state treasurer, according to newly obtained records by the Chicago Sun-Times.

    Sheri M. Bowen’s "inability to comply with the set procedures in processing absentee envelopes and ballots for the Nov. 4, 2014, general election has unnecessarily exposed the board to both financial and legal risks and liabilities," prompting Bowen’s dismissal a week after Election Day, according to the termination letter that was obtained by the Sun-Times.

    Previously, city election officials had refused to identify Bowen or say why they fired her after unsuccessful Republican state treasurer candidate Tom Cross cited a "terminated employee" in a Nov. 13 letter that said there were "numerous irregularities identified by election monitors in the handling of ballots" in Chicago.

    The following day, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners dismissed most of Cross’ allegations. And Cross ended up not pursuing them after it became clear two weeks after Election Day that he didn’t have enough votes to seek a recount in his race against Democrat Mike Frerichs, who defeated him by about 9,500 votes out of more than 3.5 million cast statewide.

    But the election board acknowledged there were problems with absentee ballots, which apparently became the basis for Bowen’s dismissal.

    The biggest: Ninety-nine absentee ballots arrived at the election board too late to be counted, wrote James M. Scanlon, the board’s general counsel, in a Nov. 14 response to Cross’ campaign. Those ballots — which were postmarked after the Nov. 3 deadline to mail them — ended up mixed in with 459 validly cast absentee ballots, with no way to identify the invalid ballots from the valid ones.

    The election board decided to count all of them but to keep the absentee tally separate in case any race ended up so close that a challenge to the official results was filed.

    "Because it was impossible to identify which of the 558 absentee ballots were the 99 'too late' ballots and remove those 99 from counting . . . it was the board’s plan to count all these ballots separately," Scanlon wrote. "In that way, the political parties can be armed with information that they may use in any post-election court proceedings."

    Bowen worked for the election board for 24 years and made $71,364 a year as its absentee voting supervisor.

    Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

    Jim Allen, a board spokesman, declined to comment about Bowen and also about whether disciplinary action might have been taken against other employees because of the absentee-ballot problems.

    According to election board records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Bowen had won praise more than half a dozen times from voters who had written or called her supervisors.

    But the agency’s records also document that Dawn Navarro, one of Bowen’s bosses, spoke with her in 2004 about "a couple of issues" that "need to be addressed in order for the absentee department to run more smoothly in future elections." 

    Bowen was told she needed to be "more aggressive" regarding "attention/discipline to employees that are not being productive" and "more assertive with delegation of duties."

    "Employees, especially the regular absentee department employees, should . . . be able to handle phone calls and answer any question that a per diem employee may ask,” Navarro wrote. “It is understandable and expected of you to answer questions for irate voters when they request a supervisor; however, your staff should try to screen some of the calls if possible."

    There is no evidence to suggest that Bowen or any city elections employee ever acted intentionally to influence the outcome of any race.

    In mid-November, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., asked U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon to investigate the allegations Cross raised. But, as of last week, no law-enforcement agencies had subpoenaed the election board for records, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago declined to comment.

    The problems involving Bowen also don’t appear to be part of the post-election investigations being conducted by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office. But Alvarez’s office continues to investigate the origin of pre-election “robocalls” that misled some election judges into thinking they had to attend an extra three-hour training session or vote a certain way if they wanted to serve.

    More than 2,000 judges failed to show up at polling places in Chicago on election day, causing long lines that apparently discouraged some people from voting in typically heavily Democratic precincts, though apparently not enough to change the outcome of any race.

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