Claypool concedes race for county board president

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A self-styled reformer who challenged the longtime president of the Cook County board conceded defeat Wednesday in the Democratic primary race, while elections officials said they would continue counting ballots.

"The administration of this election was a train wreck," said Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who was forced to radically overhaul his campaign a week before Tuesday's election after incumbent John Stroger suffered a stroke.

Claypool said he called Stroger's son to offer his congratulations and hopes for the 76-year-old's quick return to health.

Although ballots still remained to be counted, "It's obvious to me the outcome of the election isn't going to be changed," Claypool said.

Stroger's son, Chicago alderman Todd Stroger, later accepted the nomination on behalf of his father, who remained hospitalized.

"I don't burden him with election things other than that we won," Todd Stroger told a news conference. "He's aware of the victory. He's happy."

With 4,407 of 4,990 precincts counted in unofficial returns Wednesday, Stroger won the nomination with 52 percent of the vote. Claypool garnered 48 percent.

Claypool said both his campaign and Stroger's would like to see public hearings on what happened with the ballots so that voters can be assured their votes are correctly counted "and the voters can feel confidence in the system itself."

The sentiment was echoed by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Stroger supporter.

"I expect the November election to be conducted at a higher level," he said. "The voters of Cook County can't experience this kind of mockery again."

New voting equipment in Cook County delayed the results after there were problems Tuesday night transmitting the vote totals to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners headquarters, where the official results are recorded.

The city and county election boards stopped counting the votes hours after midnight Wednesday. Counting resumed for just a few hours Wednesday afternoon, but election officials said they would continue Thursday morning.

As of Wednesday night, 343 of Chicago's 2,604 precincts still did not have official results, said Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Tom Leach.

Tuesday night's transmission glitches stemmed from equipment problems or human error, Neal said. The new voting equipment -- when working -- allowed voters to make their selections on touch screens or to have their paper ballots scanned by computers.

To get the results to election headquarters, the ballots were trucked to the downtown office to be counted. Board investigators, police and other authorities safeguarded the trucks, Neal said.

Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Dan White said the board received isolated reports of minor voting equipment problems statewide, but not at the level of what happened in Chicago.

"This was an extremely ambitious widespread change in our election process," Claypool's campaign manager, Marj Halperin, said of the new voting system. "However, it was an overly ambitious experiment and it failed spectacularly."

If Stroger cannot perform his duties, party leaders will pick a replacement to face Republican Tony Peraica, a county commissioner, in November's general election in the largely Democratic county.

"The chances of the Democratic organization turning to me are zero," said Claypool, who described his campaign as being against the status quo and "the old Democratic machine."

Stroger's stroke on March 14 was not the first time he was hospitalized since he first took office as president. He was taken to a hospital in November 2002 after falling ill while presiding over a board meeting. Officials said Stroger, who is diabetic, had low blood sugar. In April 2001, he had quadruple-bypass heart surgery.

Both campaigns contended that the uncounted ballots were from areas where they would have drawn strong support.

Speaking to Stroger supporters early Wednesday, State Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, said many of the areas were predominantly black communities that would back Stroger.

"Our community has been disenfranchised," Trotter said. "This process has, at this point, has been a farce because we ... have not been recognized in this political process."

Neal said there is no way to know which precincts had not been counted. He also tried to assuage concerns about ballot security.

"We maintain a very stringent chain of custody. The ballots will be locked up and secured," he said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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