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Counting every last vote – and cupcake – in 33rd and 46th wards

Signs for 33rd Ward aldermanic rivals Deb Mell and Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez are seen side by side in Horner Park on February 26, 2019. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Candidates in the two closest aldermanic races have challenged the election results in court even as the latest tallies of mail ballots showed both contests narrowing a smidgen.

Democratic socialist Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez’s lead over Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) shrunk Tuesday to 12 votes, while Ald. James Cappleman’s advantage over 46th Ward challenger Marianne Lalonde slipped to 21.

When the day started, Rodriguez Sanchez was ahead by 15 votes and Cappleman by 23.

That’s not much of a change, but at this stage of a close election, every vote becomes a potential basis for hand-to-hand combat of the lawyerly kind.

Under Illinois law, ballots mailed by Election Day, April 2, must be counted if received at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners by April 16, when the board will complete its count.

Although mail ballots arrive daily from the U.S. Postal Service, election officials typically only tally them every few days.

As one would expect, the flow of ballots slows to a trickle the further we get from Election Day, narrowing the path to victory for the candidates who are trailing.

Still, nobody is giving up yet, and by the end of the day Tuesday, another 16 ballot envelopes for the 33rd Ward had been placed in the pipeline waiting to be counted Friday, plus another 13 for the 46th.

33rd Ward aldermanic candidate Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, left, and Ald. Deb Mell in January. | File Photos by Rich Hein/Sun-Times
33rd Ward aldermanic candidate Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, left, and Ald. Deb Mell in January. | File Photos by Rich Hein/Sun-Times

All four candidates from the 33rd and 46th wards filed lawsuits Monday to protect themselves in case the final count goes against them.

They challenged the results on a variety of allegations of mistakes or illegalities, including in Lalonde’s case a complaint that Cappleman plied voters in one nursing home with cupcakes spelling out “Team Cappleman” as they prepared to vote.

Lalonde’s lawyers want Cappleman’s vote total “reduced” accordingly. That’s not going to happen, but maybe the judge could require the sneaky alderman to bring cupcakes for the whole class.

Also contesting the election results is 5th Ward candidate William Calloway, although his deficit to Ald. Leslie Hairston grew Tuesday to an unlikely to overcome 174 votes.

Under a quirk in Illinois law, Chicago aldermanic candidates have only five days from the election to challenge the outcome, even though the results won’t be officially certified until April 18. Lalonde even challenged the constitutionality of that requirement.

The main pool of potential votes yet to be counted are provisional ballots cast by individuals whose eligibility was challenged at the polling place, usually over a question about their voter registration or whether they had participated in early voting or vote by mail.

In the 33rd Ward, provisional ballots were cast by 32 voters. Election officials have made preliminary rulings that 10 of those ballots will be counted, six will not be counted and another 10 are pending. The other six are categorized as partially counted, meaning their votes will only count in the citywide races.

In the 46th Ward, there are 51 provisional ballots. Election officials ruled 20 of those will be counted, another 14 will not be counted and two will be counted only for mayor and treasurer. Another 15 are pending.

46th Ward aldermanic candidate Marianne Lalonde, left, and Ald. James Cappleman. | File Photos by Rich Hein/Sun-Times
46th Ward aldermanic candidate Marianne Lalonde, left, and Ald. James Cappleman. | File Photos by Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Among those listed as pending were provisional voters who were given until Tuesday to present evidence of their eligibility, typically proof of address. Others will remain on the pending list until it is proven they didn’t vote by mail.

Among them is 33rd Ward voter Amy Kerkstra, a 38-year-old teacher from Avondale who said she received a vote-by-mail ballot but never got around to filling it out, then decided it would make more sense to vote in person on Election Day.

But when she showed up at her polling place, election judges saw Kerkstra had requested the mail ballot and required her to cast a provisional vote.

When I pointed out her vote may yet decide the outcome of the race, Kerkstra said, “No way. Oh my gosh. Democracy at work.”

Our conversation also helped clue in Kerkstra on why she had received a personal phone call from Mell — after the election.

Candidates in close contests typically try to make sure provisional voters who they believe to be supporters do what is necessary to have their votes counted.

An election-weary Kerkstra said she had deleted Mell’s phone message without listening to all of it and didn’t realize its import until I called.

Kerkstra declined to say how she voted.

Hey, I had to ask.