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Wilson demands investigation of Emanuel’s use of absentee ballots

Mayoral challenger Willie Wilson demanded Thursday that the FBI and the Illinois attorney general’s office investigate Rahm Emanuel’s campaign and its mass mailing in the hunt for absentee voters.

Wilson initially accused Emanuel’s re-election campaign of mailing actual absentee ballots that instruct voters to return them to Chicago for Rahm Emanuel, P.O. Box 1346, Chicago.

But Election Board spokesman Jim Allen said the mass mailing, like those used extensively by Gov. Bruce Rauner and former Gov. Pat Quinn, actually include absentee ballot applications — not the ballots themselves.

“We strongly recommend that voters return their applications directly to the election board so we can process them and get them their ballots. That’s our preference to speed along the process,” Allen said.

“But campaigns that want to monitor the effectiveness of their mailings are allowed under the current law to have those forms mailed back to them. There’s nothing wrong with it under the law.”

It may be “perfectly legal,”as Allen put it. But Wilson smells a rat.

After surviving a petition challenge from the Emanuel campaign, Wilson said he’s afraid the mayor’s campaign minions will sift through the absentee ballot applications and turn over to the election board only those they’re certain will result in votes cast for the incumbent.

“If somebody fills out an absentee ballot [application], it should be going to the Board of Elections — not to his place and his people. Not to someplace where he can control it. Who would trust him? Voting is supposed to be a sacred thing,” said Wilson, who recently donated $1 million to his own campaign.

“He accused my signatures of being no good, which had no merit. They called ours fraud. Just like he tried to disenfranchise 47,000 signatures, he’ll try to disenfranchise them as well.”

Emanuel campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry dismissed Wilson’s allegations as “baseless and irresponsible.

“Not only is this program completely appropriate. It gets more people to vote and it is the same program used by candidates in Illinois and across the country,” Mayberry said in an emailed statement.

“Getting more people to vote is a good thing, and Mayor Emanuel wants to make sure voters know that they can conveniently exercise their right to vote by mail.”

Encouraging supporters to vote absentee has long been a vehicle for candidates to bank votes before the polls even open.

But it became a whole lot easier in 2010, when the law was changed to relax the rules.

During the hotly contested race for governor, both Quinn and Rauner went after absentees with a vengeance — so much so that Chicago recorded its highest absentee vote since World War II and suburban Cook had its highest absentee vote ever, Allen said.

“Years ago, you had to have a reason or excuse [like], `I expect to be out of town, I’m sick, I can’t get to the polling place or I’m working in the election.’ Now, you no longer need a reason,” Allen said.

“It shot up a little in 2010, but the campaigns fine-tuned their approach and intensified it and targeted voters in 2014. There were more mass-mailings. Some people received four or five applications.”

The last day to apply for an absentee ballot is Feb. 19. To count, absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Feb. 23, the day before the mayoral election.

“When you get down to that deadline and people have spent the time to fill out an application, and the form takes two days to get to the mailing house, that’s the challenge administratively for us. We have to stay on top of these campaigns to turn those around,” Allen said.