Honesty of Cairo ballots questioned

Thursday, April 12, 2007

CAIRO, Ill. -- As the days tick down to Tuesday's election for Cairo city offices, people questioning the honesty of the balloting are pointing to specific instances they contend prove their case.

But officials and candidates defending the election process argue the particulars being cited prove nothing and, in fact, demonstrate the weakness of the charges.

Mildred Davis, mother of mayoral candidate Judson Childs, mailed her absentee ballot from Decatur, Ill., and all of her mail is being forwarded to that address, said Angela Greenwell, Alexander County commissioner.

Charles Koen Jr. and his wife, India Purchase, cast early votes despite living in Houston. Charles Koen Jr. is the son of Charles Koen, a civil rights activist and convicted felon pushed off the ballot before the primary but running as a write-in candidate for a city council seat. India Purchase is the daughter of Elbert "Bo" Purchase, the council's senior member.

For James Wisniewski, who watches voters each day at the Alexander County clerk's office, and Greenwell, the three votes are just the most egregious examples. The effort to combat questionable voting practices in Cairo includes the compilation of detailed lists of people who have moved, registered at addresses that are uninhabitable or have other issues with their voter registration.

The resignation of County Clerk Kent Thomas and his replacement during an emergency commission meeting Tuesday triggered the current round of allegations. Nancy Kline, a longtime employee of the assessor's office, was named interim clerk to handle the election.

"I am afraid for the new county clerk," Wisniewski said. "There is every indication it is crooked because of the people voting from burned-out houses, voting from parking lots and coming in from Texas, and she is going to get caught in the middle of it. She is a nice lady, and I hate to see that happen."

Bob Conroy, a candidate for councilman-at-large, was a coach at Cairo High School for 27 years and is well-known in the city. He's convinced shady dealings are tainting the election. "The deck is stacked from the top to the bottom," he said. "The kids I coached who are down on their luck will sell their votes for $5. I ask them, 'Why do you do that?' and they rub their fingers together and say money."

But Linda Jackson, a current councilwoman who is Conroy's opponent, said the charges, and especially Conroy's comments, are an attempt to explain away a likely failure. "Whichever way the election goes, the person who is defeated is going to point a finger," Jackson said. "If you don't go out and work it, it isn't going to happen. It is always a good excuse."

The legal counsel for the State Board of Elections, Steve Sturm, said a county clerk is the sole judge of who is qualified to be a registered voter, within the laws. Poll watchers will get a chance to challenge each absentee ballot before it is counted, he said, and the election judges assigned to the count will decide whether to accept or reject the ballot.

The rules for being a qualified voter are flexible, Sturm said. One of the most important rules is that as long as the voter considers Cairo their hometown and hasn't registered to vote anywhere else, they are likely legal, he said. "You have to have a residence in the place you are voting," Sturm said. "That doesn't mean you have to spend 80 percent of your time there."

And Childs, Koen and Purchase, in separate interviews Wednesday, said each of their relatives are legitimate voters who view Cairo as their permanent residence.

"My daughter has always lived at my address," Purchase said. "She spends most of her time in Texas, but this is her home."

Childs said his mother, who once ran a funeral home in Cairo, moved to Decatur recently to be cared for by a daughter and hopes to return. "My mom just celebrated her 88th birthday," Childs said. "To say the least, it kind of irritates me to say my mom is a liar. I think it is pretty cheap shot."

Greenwell's effort to find fraud is a misguided crusade, Childs said.

Koen defended his son's right to vote in Cairo and said the ballot represents a commitment to the city.

"My son does a lot of legal work here," Koen said. "As soon as Cairo can straighten itself out, I hope he returns on a permanent basis."

Tuesday's election will select a new mayor and six council members to serve four-year terms. Voters across Illinois will be choosing municipal officials and school board members.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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