806 Fair Oaks Avenue
Public Interest Litigation
Oak Park, Illinois 60302-1547
Telephone: (708) 386-1122
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Legal Representation for Candidates, Political Organizations, Governmental Entities, Unions, and Business Organizations
Nominating Petition Traps
by Richard K. Means
"I was really impressed with the win ration of Richard K. Means...he really only focuses on election law and is generally considered to be among the best." ~ Jimm Dispensa, co-founder of Aldertrack
Candidates for state and local office in Illinois are required to possess varying specific qualifications and are required to file nomination papers including petitions signed by registered voters in the district served by the office. The word "trap" in the title of this article accurately portrays the overly strict qualifications required and the hypertechnical standards against which candidates' filings are judged. The election laws are made by incumbents who sometimes seem to be motivated by only one principle: to maintain their incumbency. Thus, most incumbents regularly consult their election lawyer both to guide their own actions and also to trip up their opponents. Only the cynical would suggest that incumbents attempt to periodically change the election law simply in order to confound the unwary.
Different offices have different required qualifications. The forms needed to be filed should be custom- made to suit each individual situation. Some of the forms which are standard require specific answers which are not clearly evident from the form's questions. The number of supporting signatures required may be a crushing burden since, in some situations, an absolute minimum of 25,000 absolutely perfect signatures is required.
The penalty for failing to meet Illinois' exacting standards is very simple: denial of ballot access. Just about the worst thing that can happen to a political candidate is to be removed from the ballot. The next worst thing is for the candidate to spend all or most of his campaign resources and time defending, and even finally winning, a reasonable sounding objection to his ballot access. Campaign workers don't volunteer, contributors don't give money, and media don't disseminate sympathetic publicity about candidates whose right to be on the ballot is credibly questioned. There have been many candidates who have exhausted their entire campaign resources and energy fighting epic court battles for ballot access. Sometimes candidates win challenges against them; but even when they do, they often win the right to be on the ballot so close to the election day that their campaign never gets off the ground. Rarely does a candidate win at the ballot box after fending off a credible objection.
- Later Alderman and State Representative Juan Soliz was denied ballot access because the change of address on his voter registration filed by his campaign manager was not properly recorded
- Later Alderman Marty Oberman discovered after his State Representative campaign began that he did not meet the technical length of residency qualifications
- During a brief stay in San Francisco, Elliot Greene registered to vote there (automatically canceling his Chicago registration) and, when he returned to his old address in Chicago and became a candidate, he did not re-register
- Later Congressman Francis Lawlor used a wrong type of petition form in his first try for Congress
- Elmer Haneberg (and dozens of others in 1993) used a petition form which was perfect in 1991 but failed to include some of the Legislature's newly prescribed language
- Bill Bowe was removed from the ballot because just one of his circulators failed to physically appear before the notary to swear to the authenticity of the petitions he had passed
- Hundreds of candidates have been denied ballot access because they presented their petitions a minute or two after the filing deadline
- Thousands of candidates have been removed from the ballot because they presented too few perfect signatures
- In one election with which they directly dealt, the most careful and expert agencies in Illinois, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the Cook County Clerk, and the Illinois State Board of Elections, each had at least one erroneous or easily misinterpreted instruction or form which could have resulted in a candidate relying on it being removed from the ballot
- Dozens of candidates have been denied ballot access because they failed to number their petition sheets consecutively.
The recitation above will impact differently on potential candidates. Some will resolve that:
- The political system is so illogical and corrupt that no respectable person should have anything to do with it; or
- The political system is so illogical and corrupt that all respectable persons should sacrifice their time and efforts to clean it up; or
- The political system is so illogical and corrupt that this respectable person will run for office with expert legal advice from the very beginning of (and throughout) his or her campaign in order to be elected to change the system.
Which one are you?
[Richard K. Means is a Chicago lawyer who concentrates his practice on election matters. He is a twice former Chairman of the Chicago Bar Association Election Law Committee, has served as the State Chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois -Independent Precinct Organization, and is a founder and advisor to Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts). He is currently the Chicago Area Chapter Chair of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Means formerly was the Chief of the Election Law Division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, has served as a contract attorney and on an advisory committee for the Illinois State Board of Elections. He regularly writes articles and lectures on election law for other lawyers and is regularly appointed by the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County to serve to fill vacancies on local election boards.]