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Intimidation at the Polls: Two Tales of Election Woes

Mom takes her special needs child to the voting booth and leaves in tears. Meanwhile, this editor encounters an overzealous poll watcher.

In the United States, voting is a pretty simple process if you think about it.

Once you are registered, which seriously is not a difficult process, you just show up and vote. You don’t have to worry about verbal or physical abuse or intimidation. Right?

I don’t think anyone expects to encounter issues when they get to the polls. I didn’t and neither did Naperville resident Pattie Bolek. But Tuesday when Bolek went to vote she left the polls shaken. And I had my own experience that left me more than a little shook up.

Bolek took her daughter Kaitlyn, 7, with her to her polling place at at Hassert Boulevard and Book Road. She approached the election judges and asked for her ballot. Things were going along well.

“My daughter went up to one of the women and asked her what her name was,” Bolek said. And, the woman snapped her name back.

That was as far as the conversation could go for Kaitlyn, because she has apraxia, a motor-speech disorder, which makes getting the words out almost impossible. It’s as if “she’s trapped inside herself,” Bolek said. The phrase: “What’s your name” was a phrase Kaitlyn could say to the lady sitting at the table.

Ready to cast her ballot, mother and daughter were off to the voting booth. Parents know how important it is to instill the importance of voting. I know I remember going with my mother and being inside the booth, which made the whole process seem so secret and important.

Once in the booth that was when the trouble began for Bolek. The ballot was very short this year and didn’t take long to complete. But as she was voting, Kaitlyn found one of the plastic cords that are used to hold the booths together. The cord was just hanging there.

That was when the same woman Kaitlyn had talked with came over and scolded her, yelling: “Don’t touch those,” Bolek said.

“I told her she has some special needs and she doesn’t understand,” Bolek said.

Feeling that she could turn it into a learning moment for the woman, who was old enough to know better, Bolek went over before leaving and offered the woman one of her business cards, which has her website on it. She hoped the woman might visit to learn more about the disorder.

“I said, the next time you decide to scold a child maybe you should speak to the parent first,” Bolek said. The election judge responded angrily that she hadn’t yelled. Bolek again said calmly that the woman should talk to the parent first and she explained again that her daughter has special needs.

As she turned to leave and was walking away with her daughter she was nearly reduced to tears as another election judge at the top of his voice yelled out: “Then why don’t you hang a damn sign around her neck.”

“He said it while I was walking away and I didn’t turn around; I didn’t address it,” she said. “I knew my mom instincts might kick in and I might jump over the table. And I didn’t want to put my daughter into that situation.”

Since the incident, Bolek has spoken with the Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots, asking that the man be removed as a judge and that he apologize. She was told she would hear back, but that call has yet to come. 

“It was like I was kicked in the stomach,” she said. “My daughter is 7 and I’ve tried to protect her for the last seven years and I realized I can’t protect her. There are mean people. I think I did the best I could to protect her [that day].”

Kaitlyn didn’t seem to realize what had happened at the time, Bolek said. “She saw I was crying and asked me why I was sad.”

When asked what she hopes others learn from her story, Bolek said, “It’s just sad. It’s sad that adults have to behave that way. … Basically, without sounding silly it’s like go back to kindergarten ... respect your neighbor, you hold hands when you cross the street.

"When you get older they just seem to lose that, basic respect for human life and human beings.”

UPDATE: Pattie Bolek heard back from Will County officials on April 12. After a conference call with the Will County Clerk and her supervisor and another call with the Will County Clerk, Nancy Schultz Voots, she learned that the man was told he would not be retained as an election judge.

Supervision or intimidation?

Just as Bolek encountered a problem voting, I, too, ran into difficulties while trying to report on people voting.

As a reporter you never know what you will get. Sometimes what might be the easiest story turns out to be tougher than expected. For Tuesday's election, my challenge arose at the first precinct I visited.

I went into on Mill Street and asked to talk with the election judge. I was there to see how many people had voted and how it was going. I was chatting with the election judge getting the numbers, when a woman came over and began starring at me and reading my press credentials.

I told her who I was and where I was from and she proceeded to tell me I wasn’t allowed to be there. “You need to have poll watcher credentials,” she told me. I explained I was with the press and she didn’t care.

Looking around at the election judges, I noticed they had what I would describe a look of fear and concern on their faces.

The poll watcher proceeded to ask me where I was going next and I responded, “If I am going anywhere else do you really think I’m going to tell you.”

I left the church and walked out to my car where I went to make a phone call. In all my years reporting I’d never encountered anyone trying to intimidate me as this woman had. As a voter, I’d never even seen a poll watcher once in any election.

But this woman wasn’t done. She followed me out into the parking lot and proceeded to take down my license plate number. I yelled out to her “Are you writing down my plate number” and she responded “No, I’m writing about what a beautiful day it is.”

Then she approached me in my car and told me she had the law there with her (showing me some papers) and I told her I had the First Amendment.

I spoke with Doreen Nelson, from the DuPage County Election Commission, about the incident and it turns out the woman is affiliated with an organization that has challenged the commission, filing thousands of complaints over the years.

Poll watchers are not meant to intimidate voters or judges. Nelson said that, generally, a poll watcher is appointed by a candidate to sit in the polling place to monitor the integrity of the election.

“A lot of times they have a list of registered voters to mark off the list and then midday they will go home but usually they will follow up and call those who hadn’t voted and remind those people to vote.”

And they can stay and watch the vote counting until the end, Nelson said.

Nelson wasn’t surprised to hear my story. She knew who the woman was before she had an employee look in the records. She’s a Naperville resident and that polling place is near her home.

Needless to say, I might not visit that one again. However, Nelson told me, “Oh, she moves around.” I found that extremely comforting to know for future elections.

Just as the number of voters has declined, so has the number of poll watchers.

“Even with big campaigns we don’t have the monitoring of the polls [by poll watchers], which speaks to the elections we run,” Nelson said. “I think it speaks to the quality of what we are doing that there is nothing to see.”

But what of this particular poll watcher? Was she there to ensure that things were running smoothly, that the election was run with integrity? Or was her intention to be the intimidator? 

In my opinion, and after looking into the eyes of the election judges who appeared truly concerned, I’d have to say the latter. Anytime someone stalks you to your vehicle, takes down your license plate number and appears to be following you, I think the intent is less than genuine.

Remind me. What country do we live in again?

For more information about apraxia visit the Apraxia-Kids website.

For information about the role of poll watchers visit the DuPage County Election Commission website.

redskin71 April 09, 2011 at 09:43 PM
Probably neither republican or democrat. Like my polling place, just some crochety old person looking to pick up a couple of bucks, some dounuts and coffee while sitting on their laurels if you know what I mean all day.
moghopper April 09, 2011 at 11:15 PM
I agree with Redskin. These people who want to turn everything into a left/right debate should try turning off their FoxNews and Rachel Maddow once in a while.
Janet April 10, 2011 at 12:55 AM
@Ed. Contrary to your opinion, there was no violence from the left in support of unions in Wisconsin. There were some Republicans who wanted to make it appear that there was, but, in fact, the protesters were very civil. Nor was there violence from the ACORN employees. ACORN has been unfairly painted, via a highly doctored video as engaging in unscrupulous practices. After the uncut video was released (which unfortunately didn't happen until ACORN was forced to close shop), it was clear that the questions the ACORN employees were asked did not pair up with the answers shown in the doctored video and that, in fact, the answers were perfectly appropriate and above board when seen in their proper context. In one instance, where James O'Keefe claimed he was going to bring sex slaves across the boarder from Mexico, the ACORN employee appeared to be going along with the ruse. However, what wasn't reported was that as soon as O'Keefe left, the ACORN employee contacted a member of a joint American/Mexican task force that investigated such cases and reported the encounter. Essentially, he played along with someone he thought was serious so that he could gather enough information for law enforcement to pursue. That little fact escaped the media's attention until after the innocent ACORN employee was canned. So, you tell me. Who's more likely to engage in fear mongering and intimidation?
Janet April 10, 2011 at 04:58 AM
@moghopper. You are making false equivalencies. There is a far cry between Rachel Maddow and Fox News. Rachel and her staff go to great pains to ensure the facts in their reports. Fox News is the propaganda arm of the far right. They regularly tell lies and distort truth. They engage in fear mongering. Keith Olbermann was the first on MSNBC to point out the fallacies being perpetuated by the far right and Fox news (http://huff.to/ifJond). At least when Rachel does make a factual error, she will publicly apologize for it and accepts responsibility for the error. Fox News rarely apologizes and usually tries to deflect culpability when they do it. They were the ones who played to now debunked ACORN videos over and over and they KNEW (because they had the original footage) that what they were playing was false. They reversed the numbers on a Gallup pole that showed the majority of Americans opposed Gov. Walker's effort to strip public sector unions of collective bargaining rights to make it appear that most Americans favored it (http://bit.ly/hdUwxf). And it wasn't just that the graphic they had was wrong. They supported the misinformation in the commentary as well. A study by the University of Maryland showed that Fox News viewers were the most misinformed on basic political facts (http://bit.ly/hEGiPe). You need SOMEONE who will step up to the plate and point out the lies, otherwise if the lies are all people hear, it's all they will believe.
Russ April 10, 2011 at 06:00 AM
well done Janet

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