My First Chicago Election (Wednesdays for My Wife)

We hear so much about voter fraud and possible interference by foreign countries in US elections these days, sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t go back to the old voting machines we used until the 1980’s.

Old voting machine. (source: Vintage Ad Browser)

When I first started voting in the Seventies, we used voting machines similar to the one shown in the picture. After getting past the phalanx of election judges, you would step into the machine and pull a red handle to close the curtain so no one could see who you were voting for. You then had a series of levers to pull. Easiest to do was to pull the big levers on one side for the two major parties (Republican and Democratic) and open the curtain, which would then register your vote as a straight ticket for that party. If you wanted to split your vote, you could flip the levers for each individual candidate, then open the curtain and have your votes recorded, more or less the way you cast them. And, if you didn’t like any of the candidates, you would have a little door that allowed you to write in the person of your choice.

I tell you all this so you’ll understand this story, about my first time voting in Chicago.

I was working third shift at Newly Weds Foods at the time, about a year after Mary and I were married. I got off work at seven on Election Day and stopped to vote before I went home, at about seven-thirty. Among the election judges were Vi, the lady who lived downstairs from us, who was British and had been a war bride, and Bernice, a lady who lived a couple of doors down from us and was a good neighbor, but not exactly the most pleasant person to deal with. She was the typical nosy neighbor who listened to the police scanner to find out if anything was going on nearby, and was always peeking out her window.

I went through the whole rigamaole of identifying myself, signing an affadavit that said that I was who I said I was (not that all that matters in Chicago), got checked off in the book, then Bernice directed me to one of the voting machines. I pulled the red lever to close the curtain, and set about casting my ballot. I got to the race for 12th ward alderman, and had no idea about either of the guys running, so I opened the little write-in door, wrote “John Holton” in #3 pencil in the space provided, closed the little door, and pulled the red lever to open the curtain and record my vote. Having thusly performed my civic duty, I went home and went to bed.

That evening, I was about to leave for work, and I heard all this laughing and heavy footsteps coming up the back stairs. It was Vi, home from a day of being an election judge. Evidently, when they saw that a write-in vote had been cast, they had to figure out how to get the paper out of the machine. Bernice was the lucky person who got to take the roll of paper out, and she managed to practically wrap herself up in it. Since the paper advanced a foot or so every time someone voted, and since our precinct had a good turnout, and since I had voted so early in the day, it took them forever to find where I had written myself in.

Needless to say, Bernice was not happy (or rather, especially grumpy) the next time she saw me. “What the hell were you doin’, votin’ for yerself? Don’t ever do that again, ya hear me?”

We changed to punch cards after that, unfortunately. I was really looking forward to writing Bernice in for Cook County Recorder of Deeds…


19 thoughts on “My First Chicago Election (Wednesdays for My Wife)

  1. Hi John and Mary … that really takes the biscuit doesn’t it … how funny to read – and to learn how your secret got out … strange but true tale … cheers Hilary


  2. Mom told a story of a helpful precinct worker who gave her on an inservice on the voting machine. At the end of it she exclaimed, “you just voted for me!” He denied it, of course….

    There’s the famous Richard J Daley story where John F Kennedy asks him how many votes he could deliver. Daley put his arm around the young Senator’s shoulder and says, “Son, how many do you need?”


  3. What a prankster! When I first voted here, it was twice by absentee ballot. Then it was levers. It was levers in Georgia. Moved home, and it was fill in the bubble and send them through a computer. I prefer levers.


    1. You might remember I used to stay up well into the wee hours in high school listening to WDAI’s call-in show hosted by Wayne Juhlin. In between calls and interviews, he would play comedy records (it was my introduction to Tom Lehrer). One of them was a guy singing “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” with quotes from Hizzoner interspersed between the lines. It was hilarious. Wish I could find it now…


  4. You bad boy who screwed up the whole voting machine…I had to smile at that. I think you might be right with bringing back the old style since it see,ed to work better and might be less able to corrupt the findings


    1. Believe me, the folks at the Chicago Board of Elections figured out all manner of ways they could get more votes out of one of those machines than went into it…


  5. Again, I relate to your Chicago stories. There is still the standing Chicago joke around elections, “Vote early and vote often.” That quote is right up there with, “The cops are not there to create disorder, they are there to preserve disorder.” Good old Mayor Richard J. Daley, DNC, 1968


    1. His son was just as bad. My aunt worked in the State’s Attorney’s office when Richie held that office, and said you could never send him out to address the media without a prepared statement. One time, he was stuck in front of the members of the press after some terrible thing happened, and lacking a carefully-prepared statement, said “I’m outrageous!”


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