Candidates in Illinois Often get Booted from the Ballot for Ticky-Tack* Reasons
Reformers say electronic signatures would go a long way toward fixing the problem
For the last week, political operatives have huddled in front of a dozen computers inside an office in a Springfield strip mall that’s also home to a Chuck E. Cheese.
They compared the signatures on candidate nominating petitions to the ones on file with the State Board of Elections, looking for ones that don’t match. Odds are they already had checked to see if those who signed are actually registered to vote and live in the district of the candidate they backed.
The intel they gathered will go into dozens of filings that are due Monday as campaigns try to knock opponents off the June 28 primary election ballot. It’s a time-honored tradition in the Land of Lincoln, a guy who knew how to play hardball politics when he needed to.
In Illinois, it’s hard to run for office, and it’s easy to lose your spot on the ballot. There are rules. So many rules. Rules on how you have to file and what you have to file. Rules on who can circulate petitions, and rules on who can sign them.
Critics say the state’s notoriously ticky-tack ballot access rules help the two major political parties control the process. First-time and independent candidates might not yet have the campaign money to hire experts to provide guidance, especially on gathering signatures that will pass muster. Then these candidates spend what little resources they have attempting to fend off ballot challenges, wasting money and time that otherwise could have been spent on engaging voters. Facing a petition challenge also can hurt a candidate’s fundraising, scaring away potential donors with the idea that they might not make the ballot.
Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois, questioned who the rules benefit.
“Who is going to get knocked off the ballot? Usually, it’s people who don’t have party support who can tell them how to navigate the system. Who don’t have a ton of money for lawyers who can help them defend against challenges or make challenges. People who aren’t incumbents,” she said. “It really ends up being an additional barrier for people, especially for more independent candidates. That’s bad for competition. It’s bad for political competition, and anything that’s bad for political competition is bad for voters.
”Backers of the current ballot access system say the rules are meant to prevent fraud. Political types in both parties have long said that being able to follow the rules to get on the ballot is a sort of competency test, the first step in proving a candidate is ready to hold the office they’re seeking.
Veteran election lawyer Michael Dorf noted that court rulings have started to make the ballot process a little more lenient. For example, petition circulators no longer have to live within the district they’re gathering signatures. And courts have ruled that election authorities should just dismiss a few errant signature pages instead of throwing out the whole batch, he said.
Signature challenges remain the leading way to try to remove candidates from the ballot. Reform groups say a key fix is to let candidates collect nominating petition signatures electronically using a tablet and app that can quickly determine whether the voter in front of them is eligible to sign. Reducing the number of signatures required, especially for independent candidates, also would help, reformers say.
Following the rules
Would-be candidates who visit the state elections website are greeted by a 10-box checklist. Election officials note that it’s “not binding and should not be construed as sufficient argument in response to any objection.” In fact, “obtain legal counsel” is the first note in the elections agency’s general filing information—for help with things like qualifications for office, proper method for completing the petition forms and qualifications of signers and circulators.
There are so many hoops to jump through, the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association put out a tip sheet in 2019 to help candidates, noting the state “has some of the most complex ballot access laws in the country.”
The group listed the top reasons petitions get challenged. Among them: the signer isn’t registered to vote, lists the wrong address, doesn’t live in the district or doesn’t sign correctly, the circulator didn’t complete the bottom section or the notary didn’t sign and stamp the sheet.
Candidates must file a statement of candidacy. They’ve got to be sure the way they sign their name on the statement of candidacy matches the petitions, or they could face a ballot challenge. The statement has to be notarized. A notary is someone licensed by the Illinois secretary of state’s office to give a seal of approval on official documents.
The late U.S. Rep. Sidney Yates once had his ballot paperwork challenged because his document was notarized in Washington, D.C. instead of Illinois. “We won, but we had to go to the appellate court,” Dorf said. “I thought, ‘This is a really stupid law.’”
Circulating petitions is probably the biggest challenge. The signature sheets must be original, “all one uniform size” and “numbered consecutively starting with the number ‘1’.” The signature sheets “must be neatly fastened together in book form at one edge in a secure and suitable manner.” Paperclips? Nope. They are not a “secure way to fasten petitions” and will be rejected. Staples are acceptable.
Petition circulators have to be at least 18 and a U.S. citizen. They can’t circulate for more than one party. The circulator must personally witness all signatures given and sign to verify they did so at the bottom of each page. Signature gatherers have to complete the circulator statement at the bottom of the form before they start collecting, but aren’t supposed to sign the petition until they are front of a notary, who has to witness it.
Candidates have to be sure to get more than enough signatures in case they’re challenged. Sometimes, they’ll hire paid circulators, who have the financial incentive to turn in a lot of signatures, not necessarily valid ones.
For established political parties, U.S. Senate and other statewide candidates had to get at least 3,250 valid signatures, while congressional candidates needed 400 (both reduced due to the pandemic). State Senate candidates needed at least 650 signatures, while House candidates needed a minimum of 400.
Election lawyers file challenges based on what they perceive as rules violations every election cycle.
Before the 2020 Democratic primary, a challenger to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx tried to get her kicked off the ballot, claiming that on many of her voter signatures, the address didn’t match the signer or the gatherer didn’t label the petition with the correct address. A hearing officer tossed more than half of Foxx’s signatures, but she still had more than enough to stay on the ballot.
In the same election, former Cook County Board president Todd Stroger withdrew his bid for the water reclamation board after he was challenged on whether he had enough valid signatures.
During the 2019 Chicago mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle briefly challenged the petitions of Lori Lightfoot, Comptroller Susana Mendoza and others. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas briefly challenged former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s bid.
In the suburbs that same year, the Flossmoor electoral board kicked a trustee candidate off the ballot, finding his nominating papers were not numbered or bound. Three would-be Matteson trustees were tossed because they didn’t specify what office they were seeking, though two other candidates who made the same mistake were kept on.
In Norridge last year, three trustee candidates got the boot because their nominating petitions were submitted in a manila envelope and not “fastened in a secure and suitable manner.” The candidates were seeking to unseat candidates from the village’s ruling party, which made up the local electoral board.
The Chicago Tribune found such problems run rampant in the suburbs in a 2013 investigation, “Democracy Denied.” Local election boards, often controlled by those with a stake in deciding who stayed on the ballot, removed 76 candidates in 36 or so suburbs. The rules were applied inconsistently, the Tribune found.
Dorf said that the state elections board and election authorities in Chicago and Cook County have professional staffs and hire hearing officers. “Those are places you know you’re going to get a fair shake,” said Dorf, who is also general counsel and treasurer for the Democratic Party of Illinois. That’s not always the case with municipal electoral boards, which “can be a little more iffy.”
Even former President Barack Obama engaged in the sharp-elbowed practice of getting his opponents kicked off the ballot. Obama’s then-state Senate campaign got veteran Sen. Alice Palmer booted in the 1996 Democratic primary by challenging her nominating paperwork.
Knocking them off
Proponents of the current ballot access system say there are rules for a reason. Page numbering is meant to avoid tampering. The same is true for fastening pages—the idea is to avoid someone trying to add pages later.
Campaigns seeking to knock opponents off the ballot typically find someone who lives in the district and slap their name on a candidate objection. The state elections board deals with objections for statewide and congressional races, and most state Senate and House and judicial races. There are exceptions, including when a legislative or judicial district is contained in a single county or city, which often means Cook County or Chicago. Those, plus challenges in municipal elections, are handled by the local election board.
Objections most often are based on allegations a candidate doesn’t have enough valid signatures to remain on the ballot. Objectors have to provide a reason for every signature they want to invalidate. If they can dispute enough signatures that would theoretically take a candidate under the signature requirement, state elections board staff meet with representatives for the objectors and candidate and sit at a computer and make recommendations on each disputed signature. Think the tediousness of the 2000 Al Gore-George W. Bush Florida hanging chads fiasco, but on a smaller scale with more individual cases.
“The biggest reason signatures are struck is the signer is not a registered voter or is not a resident of the district where the petition is being passed,” said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the state elections board.
Maybe the voter signed the petition at a farmer’s market but lives a couple counties over, or inked it at a CTA or Metra stop downtown but lives in a different suburb outside the district in question.
The staff recommendations go to the elections board general counsel, who appoints a hearing officer for the case, typically a retired judge, election lawyer or retired state elections board staff. Candidates who fall below the threshold can try to rehabilitate signatures, and both sides make their arguments on whatever objection is at issue. The hearing officer makes a recommendation to the general counsel, and then the eight-member state elections board (four Democrats, four Republicans) gets to vote on whether a candidate stays on the ballot. Candidates who lose can take their plea to court.
“You can see how this drawn-out process can cause a lot of confusion for voters,” Kaplan said.
For candidates who obviously don’t have enough signatures, state elections board staff can run a check for what’s called “apparent conformity” and recommend the candidate be dumped from the ballot.
The state elections board saw 111 objections filed in 2020, with 26 sustained and another 23 candidates deciding to withdraw. In 2018, there were 155 objections, with 33 cases sustained and 24 candidates opting to drop out. And in 2016, there were 146 objections, with 34 sustained and 31 candidates withdrawing.
This year, 138 objections were filed with the state elections board, with most of them coming in as Monday's deadline loomed.
The week following the candidate filing deadline is a frenzied time in some political organizations, with operatives and election lawyers scrutinizing signatures to see if they can invalidate enough of them to knock an opponent off the ballot.
Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s 13rd Ward operation moved aggressively to try to boot a college student who tried to challenge Ald. Marty Quinn, a key member of Madigan’s team, in 2019. Southwest Side voters who signed the challenger’s petitions told the Tribune they were paid repeated visits and sometimes yelled at as ward heelers tried to get them to revoke their signatures.
The effort went awry, however, when Team Madigan collected more affidavits of people withdrawing their signatures than the candidate had actually submitted to run for office. In the end, it didn’t matter—Quinn dropped the ballot challenge and easily won re-election—but it attracted a Cook County investigation.
Illinois ready for reform?
Good government and democracy advocates say a few things can be done to reform the candidate nominating petition process in Illinois.
Allowing candidates to collect signatures using an iPad with an app that checks whether the voter is adding a valid signature is one way to cut down on petition challenges. It’s been in place in Denver since 2015, cutting down on wayward signatures. Arizona allows voters to sign from home, according to Kaplan, of Reform for Illinois.“
In Illinois, that would mean fewer politicized signature challenges and more opportunities for a broad range of candidates to run for office,” Kaplan wrote in an opinion piece in the Sun-Times.
Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago has a bill to allow digital signature programs, but it’s stuck in committee.
“The digital signatures would help a lot,” Kaplan said. Of the seven top reasons the Illinois Democratic County chairs’ group lists for candidates getting knocked off a ballot, “digital signatures would address five of them.”
Reformers say another way to open up the political process to candidates is to reduce the signature requirement for non-established political parties, which in Illinois is any party save for the Democrats and Republicans. Third party and independent candidates have to gather at least 25,000 valid signatures to run statewide, while congressional candidates have to get only 5,000.
CHANGE Illinois has tried to get the signature requirements lowered to run for Chicago mayor or Cook County-wide office. Governor candidates in a non-pandemic year typically need only 5,000 valid signatures, but Chicago mayoral hopefuls have to collect 12,500 signatures. For countywide offices in Cook, Democrats had to gather 20,000 signatures in 2018. The suggested change was to lower the requirement to 5,000 signatures.
“We ought to be streamlining the process and making it easier for people to run for office, not more difficult. Look at how easy it is in California,” said Madeleine Doubek, the group’s executive director. In that West Coast state, election officials verify candidate residency and voter submitted signatures.
In 2019, Cassidy and then-state Sen. Heather Steans proposed the signature change as well as an electronic signature gathering component, but the proposal stalled in committee.
Dorf, the election attorney, suggested charging a fee to candidates to get on the ballot, as well as lowering the number of signatures required. That would lower the barrier a little bit while still requiring candidates “to show a modicum of popular support.”
The Citizen Advocacy Center studied 20 years of ballot access decisions by electoral boards in suburban Cook and DuPage counties and found the issue very challenging because records weren’t retained. The organization also concluded there was “inconsistent decision-making between and within electoral boards” and candidates and referendum questions were “eliminated from the ballot over easily remedied technical problems.”
Among the group’s recommendations were to allow the state elections board to interpret the election code for local election boards, tightening up conflicts-of-interest on local election boards and allowing candidates to correct minor mistakes in filing, such as numbering signature sheets or binding them together.
“Allowing changes to nomination papers such as paginating the signature sheets or better fastening the papers under supervision promotes the policy of maximum ballot access without sacrificing the guard against fraud,” the organization wrote.* Urban Dictionary defines "Ticky Tack" as "an extremely minor offense."
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