The phone call that set off the big whodunit of the 2014 Illinois general election might sound innocuous enough.
“This is your Chicago election judge coordinator Jim Parrilli,” began the automated robocall that went out on Halloween. “I’m calling to let you know that tomorrow, Nov. 1, we are having an additional training at our headquarters from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.”
“Beverages will be served. We will have people there to answer any question you might have about your responsibility as election judge on Tuesday, Nov. 4.”
But those words, Chicago election officials contend, were part of a “serious attempt to disrupt the voting process” that has touched off at least one criminal investigation and prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to demand answers.
We now have at least a partial answer to the first of Emanuel’s questions: Who did it?
Parrilli, 68, is the 19th Ward Republican committeeman and an unsuccessful candidate for a seat on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in Tuesday’s election.
I’m told it’s indeed his voice on that recording and two others obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sources said Parrilli was working with Sharon Meroni, a Republican wingnut who considers herself a one-woman crusader against vote fraud in Illinois — in between her efforts to prove Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
Numerous Republican committeemen told me Friday that Meroni, who made her own more benign robocall, is the Cook County Republican Party’s point person for election judges. She sent out official-looking emails identifying herself as Cook County Republican election judge coordinator.
But Cook County Republican Chairman Aaron Del Mar completely disavowed any party involvement in the robocall activities or the training session.
“Anything they did, they acted alone,” said Del Mar, who insisted Meroni’s only connection to his organization was as a volunteer recruiting election judges “along with hundreds of others.”
Once upon a time, Parrilli was the mayor of Maywood and the Proviso Township Republican committeeman.
In the 19th Ward, he is known to maintain a cozy relationship with the local Democratic organization, even making political donations to them, although sources tell me he is not a wholly-owned subsidiary as is often the case.
In recent years, he garnered media attention just once: when he showed up on the doorstep of Emanuel’s recalcitrant tenant, Rob Halpin, to recruit him to run against Emanuel for mayor.
Parrilli’s involvement in that little gambit, intended to further the case that Emanuel was not a legal Chicago resident, is the sort of thing that might give rise to suspicion he’s not opposed to engaging in political mischief.
But I’m agnostic at this stage as to whether this was indeed part of some organized Republican skullduggery intended to hold down the Democratic vote or just a knuckleheaded bit of free-lancing by some low-level GOP operatives who didn’t foresee the consequences of their actions.
Just to be clear, neither Parrilli nor Meroni has been accused of any wrongdoing.
The alleged consequence is that the phone calls sowed confusion among Republican election judges, causing large numbers of them to fail to report for duty Tuesday.
That in turn is alleged to have caused disruptions in polling places that either opened late or were understaffed — with the ultimate result that long lines caused voters to skip voting to avoid the hassle.
In Chicago, the vast majority of those who go to the polls vote Democratic. If you discourage voters from voting, that hurts Democratic candidates the most.
I preface all this with allegedly because to this point the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has not quantified how many judges failed to show Tuesday or how that compared to past elections. Turnout was down 126,000 voters in Chicago, but there’s lots of reasons for that.
A key point to understanding this story is that many Republican election judges in Chicago aren’t really Republicans.
There simply aren’t enough Republicans in many parts of the city to fill the slots.
The job of election judge pays $170, which requires the judge to attend a three-hour training session and work a good 15 hours on Election Day. Republican committeemen often recruit election judges as a low-level form of patronage with an agreement that the judge will vote for them for re-election the next time.
But tell these low-paid, under-motivated folks at the last minute that they have to jump through another hoop by attending another training session, and you’re going to lose some of them.
Throw in another call that tells them they are “required to participate in voting,” which might have been construed by some as instructing them to vote Republican, and it gets worse.
Parrilli did not return my calls, although I’m assured I did get his attention by showing up Friday on the doorstep of his home in Beverly.
Before I’m accused of more sour grapes, let me just interject that whatever happened with the Republican judges was not the cause of Pat Quinn’s loss to Bruce Rauner for governor.
But intentional voter suppression is a serious business, no matter how many voters are deterred.
In the Halloween robocall quoted, Parrilli cited two locations at which training sessions would be held—411 E. 79th St. and 8340 S. Western.
The next day he called back to clarify the “seminars” would be held at 711 E. 79th and 8140 S. Western.
I visited the locations Friday. The 411 E. 79th St. site is a vacant lot. At the clothing store at 711 E. 79th St., I was told that a whole bunch of confused people showed up there on Saturday looking for the meeting.
Later, I learned there really was a Republican campaign office in the neighborhood—at 511 E. 79th St.
At 8340 S. Western, the owner told me the Cook County Republican Party had indeed rented the space, but had already cleared out.
William Delay, the 18th Ward Republican committeeman, said he chose the location, but quit working out of the office because of an unspecified “falling out.” That left Parrilli in charge of the Western location, he said.
Delay said Meroni often made visits there.
“She worked for the county chair. She was the one that supplied everything we needed in office supplies and payroll,” Delay said.
Del Mar confirmed renting offices at those locations, but denied any knowledge of the rest.
He is, however, eager to take credit for that low Democratic turnout—attributing it to his decision to not run candidates for major countywide office.
Let me point out the obvious: if Parrilli and Meroni thought they were doing something wrong, why did they use their own names in the phone calls?
That may be a good argument for the grand jury.