Resolving candidacy disputes fairly

February 28, 2005
News Article
Statement from the Clerk

It takes more than good ideas and a desire to serve your community to seek elected office these days. You may need a good election lawyer just to stay on the ballot. 
In what’s become a political blood sport in some suburban communities, established political forces lodge pointless objections to their opponents’ candidacies and rely on the questionable rulings of politically stacked electoral boards to disqualify pesky insurgents, or at least derail their campaigns.

The resources spent by unwary candidates fending off frivolous challenges and appealing the decisions of local electoral boards have essentially become a tax on political neophytes who can least afford it. This ultimately robs voters of choices on Election Day.

A legislative initiative promoted by my office aims to eliminate the potential for prejudice in resolving candidacy disputes by abolishing local electoral boards that decide whether to sustain or overrule ballot objections.

Certainly, most local electoral boards resolve cases fairly and appropriately base their rulings on existing case law. However, the opportunity for abuse, or the mere appearance of a dishonest process, diminishes voter confidence in the system. Here’s what can happen in extreme cases:

An unsuspecting candidate can face a well-oiled political organization that examines petitions in exacting detail, trying to whittle away at the required number of signatures needed to run. Because of Illinois’ restrictive ballot access requirements, objections filed against a candidate’s eligibility usually involve inconsequential errors. Minor defects that may trigger a challenge can include failing to bind petition pages properly, abbreviating words such as “street’ and “avenue,” or a voter’s signature that lacks a middle initial.

Making matters worse, all challenged candidates must make their case before local tribunals, not legally bound courts. In suburban villages, for instance, the electoral board comprises the mayor, clerk and longest serving trustee, all of whom are likely campaigning against the individual whose fate they will decide.

If removed from the ballot, a candidate may appeal the decision to the county circuit court. Not surprisingly, many of the local rulings fail to stand up. But even if they lose in court, the local powerbrokers have already won by making their rivals spend time and money defending their right to stay on the ballot, rather than campaigning.

To eliminate potential wrongdoing and discourage trivial challenges, the Illinois General Assembly should abolish local electoral boards. Under the proposed bill, the responsibility of settling ballot challenges would shift to county electoral boards, made up of the county clerk, state’s attorney and clerk of the circuit court, or their representatives. These boards already rule on state and countywide election cases in even years, and park and library district cases in odd years.

Elections are about choices. But when electoral boards unjustly choose to eliminate competition from the ballot before Election Day, it discourages qualified candidates from choosing to run for public office and voters from choosing to vote.

David Orr
Cook County Clerk