Join us, as our young campaign volunteer learns about voter intimidation…
Pavel Syerov, Jr. was back home from college for the weekend, just to walk some precincts before the election. With a bakery halfway between the train station and the house, he decided to pick up some danish and doughnuts for the folks. He walked into the familiar storefront, took his place at the end of a long line, and instinctively reached for his smartphone to kill time during the wait. But his ears perked up when he overheard a discussion in progress, ahead of him in line.
“Well, it’s the first time I’ve ever received a letter like that, Maria!”
“Same here, Oksana,” replied Maria. “It’s creepy. I guess I always knew they could tell who voted, but who ever thought they’d actually call you on it? I always thought those statistics were just general, not individualized.”
“I know, right? When I saw a letter from the party, I just thought it would be one of those usual letters, like ‘Your polling place is P.S. 100’ or something. But this felt like more a threat!”
Pavel had heard about these letters. Everybody in the dorm was talking about it, since it had been all over social media, all week. But he hadn’t actually seen one, so he kept on listening.
“The letter said they knew how I vote, and they’re counting on me continuing to vote that way,” said Maria. “I mean, whatever happened to the secret ballot?”
“It’s like we’re back in the old country,” answered Oksana, nodding sadly. “But they spy over here too. And we thought it would be different.”
Pavel couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Excuse me, ladies, but I think you misunderstood the letter. They couldn’t have said they know how you vote.”
The ladies turned toward him, and one asked “How can you be so sure? Are you saying I can’t read English?!”
“No, no, Ma’am, of course not.” Pavel shook his head and continued. “I’m just saying they wouldn’t have said that, because we DO have a secret ballot in the United States, and if they said they knew how you voted, they’d be admitting to a felony.”
“And I suppose your precious Democrats don’t break the law?” huffed Maria.
“No, I didn’t say that,” Pavel chuckled, “I just said they don’t ADMIT to it. They break laws all the time, but this particular one is hard.”
“So what do YOU think our letters said, smart guy?”
“Well, I’m betting they said they appreciate you for being a good dependable Democrat, because you take a Democrat ballot every primary. Heck, it’s Chicago, who doesn’t?” Pavel paused, and muttered to himself, “and that’s certainly something that needs to change.” He went on. “So they’re just ASSUMING that you vote Democrat in November. It’s a pretty safe bet, generally.”
Relieved, the ladies looked at each other, then back to Pavel, and one asked “You’re positive?”
“Well, anything’s possible, of course, but it would be pretty hard for the party to know how you voted. If you needed help halfway through, because of some problem with a touchscreen machine or with a paper ballot, then the election judges would see… but that’s unlikely.” Pavel paused a moment, and started asking direct questions. “Do you have really bad eyesight? Have you ever needed an election judge to help you vote?”
“No, of course not!” both ladies said in unison.
“Have you ever filled out an absentee ballot in the presence of a party worker or election worker?
“Never!” they both said. And Maria added “I’ve never voted by absentee in my life; I always vote at the polling place, on Election Day, like you’re supposed to!”
“Okay, good…” Pavel thought, then asked one more: “Have you ever handed a ballot straight to the election workers and left before you saw it put in the box, or have you always fed it into the slot yourself like you’re supposed to?”
The ladies looked at him like he was from outer space. Oksana answered “It’s in a cardboard sleeve; we walk up to the big machine and they tell us to slide it into the slot, slowly enough that the machine can read it. That’s how it’s been ever since we got the optical ballots. It’s upside down; nobody sees our vote.”
Pavel smiled. “Exactly, ladies. Nobody sees your vote. So the party doesn’t know for sure how you vote. If you take a Democrat ballot in the primary, they ASSUME that you vote Democrat in the fall, but they don’t know for sure. Still, it’s a reasonable assumption, so that’s what they go on when they mail out these letters.”
“So what should we do, sir?”
Pavel was still too young to be comfortable being called “Sir” by people twice his age, but his self-confidence lent him an air of authority, making it commonplace. He was far more likely to be called “Sir” than “Kid” nowadays, especially after he’d been speaking.
“Just be practical,” Pavel advised. “Don’t ever let anyone else see your ballot… don’t ever use a touchscreen machine if you can possibly avoid it (they’re almost impossible to render tamper-proof)… and your ballot will remain secret, as it should be.”
“And you don’t think we’ll get in trouble if we don’t vote?”
Pavel asked “Were you planning on skipping the election?”
“No,” answered Maria. “Oksana and I are next door neighbors, we never miss an election. We walk down to the polling place after our husbands go to work, and then we have breakfast together at the coffee shop.”
“A nice tradition,” said Pavel. “So you have nothing to worry about. You’ll vote, so the party won’t have reason to bug you after the election.” The young man had a twinkle in his eye as he added “And since they won’t have any way of knowing exactly HOW you voted, there’s nothing to stop you from privately expressing your displeasure by whom you vote for, is there?”
“That’s true,” answered Oksana. “I’m not anxious to reward these thugs by voting them another two years of the power to intimidate people like this. Sending out scary letters… who do they think they are, huh?”
Pavel dropped his voice a notch, and said “I think we all know who they think they are, don’t we? The permanent bosses of our community and our state. Wouldn’t it be nice to watch them lose, for once?”
“Next!” came the voice from the bakery counter. “Next!”
They had been talking so intently, they hadn’t realized that they’d made it to the head of the line at last. The ladies placed their orders, and Pavel wished them well, then ordered his own snacks to bring back to the family.
When he got home shortly thereafter, his siblings were still in bed… he could have a good long talk with his parents before waking anyone else up.
“You won’t believe the conversation I had in line at the bakery, folks!”
Pavel Sr. and Sonia Syerov chuckled, and his mom answered, “Oh, I’m sure we will! Hit us with it!”
They all sat down to breakfast, and Pavel told the tale. When he was finished, his mom brought him yesterday’s mail. There was one each from the party for his parents, one for his brother, and one more unopened envelope for Pavel to open.
He read the beginning out loud: “Dear Pavel JR Syerov. Our records indicate that you are eligible to vote in 2014. The Democratic Party of Illinois is working to increase voter turnout in your neighborhood. The Cook County Clerk Office’s official voting records are public information that show whether you cast a ballot, but not who you voted for. Public records show you’re a reliable voter in your neighborhood and we will be reviewing these records to make sure your vote counted.”
Pavel poured himself an orange juice as he soaked it in. “Wow. No wonder those ladies were nervous. I can see how this could scare people.”
“That’s mild,” his dad commented. “Have you seen the wording in some other states’ mailings? It’s all over social media.” His dad sat down to the computer and pulled up a couple of links, then printed them out.
His mom read the first one out loud as his dad kept printing out more. “Listen to this one, from the New York Democrat Party: ‘We will be reviewing voting records… to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014. If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not.’ The New York Post says it was sent to a million registered Democrats in New York. Wow.”
His dad read a news report from WRAL.com in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Patsy Keever, the vice chairwoman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, issued a letter giving people a report card on their prior voting history. One of her letters says the voter will be surveyed after the election to determine whether or not they voted, and if not, why not. It says they’re calling it ‘voter shaming,’ and it’s become a big tactic for the Dems in recent years, though this fall is the first time I can recall hearing about it.”
And his mom stared at this one a moment, reading it twice to herself before reading it out loud. “Get this! The Alaska Dispatch News says that Anchorage Democrats are getting a mailing that says ‘We’re sending this mailing to you, your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues at work and your community members to publicize who does and does not vote.’ And then… wow… it says the letter listed eleven of one recipient’s neighbors – both names and addresses – along with whether or not they each voted in the last three elections!”
Pavel’s father hadn’t read that one yet; he’d just printed it and handed it to Sonia to read. He snatched it back and stared in amazement. “Wow. Are they that desperate? Or that cocky? How can they not think this would have negative consequences?”
Pavel thought back a moment as it all sank in. “Everything in politics is a trade-off. Will something work for more people than it doesn’t work for? Will it win more votes than it loses? In this case, they must figure that the people it doesn’t work for are votes they wouldn’t have had anyway. But it sure seems risky, doesn’t it?”
Sonia nodded. “It sure is, son. Maybe if the Dems were riding a wave of successes, this could be defended as a desperate but well-intentioned attempt to save their successful track record from undoing. But they aren’t. They’re riding a wave of failures; every policy measure in the last eight years has been a disaster, from the auto bailout (that put 3000 car dealerships out of business) to the 2009 stimulus (that later turned out to be a bundle of payoffs to big city governments and trade unions)… and don’t get me started on obamacare!”
His dad nodded in agreement. “You’re right, this strategy might have made sense in some years, but certainly not this one. If people are inclined to vote for you if they show, but they just might not show, then this ‘voter shaming’ tactic might be viewed as ‘tough love.’ But if your members are likely to be no-shows because they’re not happy with you, and you push them into voting anyway, then instead of not voting, you just might spur people to vote against you! I have a feeling they’d have been better off in the end with a depressed turnout, rather than using this tactic.”
Pavel started on a second doughnut, and told his parents of some of the big-city authoritarianism he’d been recognizing for the first time in his reading at college. “It’s amazing how much power these one-party big cities have over individuals. Republican voters, for the most part, wouldn’t have any reason to fear getting on the wrong side of their local party, because Republicans are almost never dependent on government for things… but Democrats often are.”
Pavel Jr. thought further, and started to list the many kinds of retaliation that Democrat voters might fear from a vindictive party:
- “They could fear that the union would put a black mark by their name so they don’t get called for work at the union hall, or
- if they have welfare checks, they could fear losing their benefits, or
- if they work for the government, they could lose their patronage job, or
- if they have a business that’s dependent on a business license or government contract, they could fear harassment or even having a license or contract pulled, or
- if they have a house or six-flat that they plan to remodel, they could fear extra inspections or denials of permits, or
- if they have kids in the public schools, maybe being kept out of the charter school and having to attend the regular local gang recruiting center instead...
That’s a lot of Democrat threats, hanging out there over the heads of the voters, isn’t it?”
“Yup, and all that on top of all the USUAL fears in Democrat-run cities like Chicago,” added his mom, “like not having their garbage picked up, or getting tickets for overhanging tree branches or not mowing their lawn often enough, or getting parking tickets for borderline stuff like the car in the driveway being a foot over the sidewalk. Man, how did they ever let the Democrats get this powerful in the first place???”
His dad topped off all their orange juices and sat back and smiled. “But it’ll all backfire on the Democrats if the voters just think it through. Even if, out of fear of reprisal, they feel they have to take Democrat ballots in the primary… as long as they show up in November, they can vote any way they want to in the general election, in the privacy of the voting booth!”
“Sure enough, Dad,” Pavel Jr. responded. “As I told the ladies at the bakery, there’s no more satisfying way of getting back at a tyrannical government than by casting a vote against them, in support of the opposition party.”
His mom raised her glass and led them in a toast. “Here’s hoping lots of people figure it out this year, and are motivated by that same impulse to turn the traitors out on Tuesday!”
“Hear, Hear!” echoed father and son, as they drank their drinks and got ready to wake up the others, and face a day of walking precincts in the suburbs, maybe for Larry Kaifesh, maybe for Jim Moynihan… a good safe distance from the impossible odds and hostile territory of the 51st Ward.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is an international trade compliance trainer and Customs broker, amateur actor and recovering politician (but like any addiction, you’re never really cured). He was born in Chicago, but moved to the suburbs as an infant, and has avoided Chicago residency ever since, for perhaps obvious reasons…
This column is a work of fiction, and the characters are not based on any actual people, living or dead… but the vote fraud and voter intimidation tactics described herein are, sadly, all too real.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow John F. Di Leo on Facebook or LinkedIn, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo.