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Election 2015 Mon Dec 01 2014

That Magical Time of Year in Chicago: It's Challenge Season

Petitions for municipal office were due at 5pm on Monday, Nov. 24. Aldermanic candidates had to submit 473 valid signatures.

But... if someone filed a petition with just a single signature -- their own -- they might officially be on the ballot anyway.

And someone else, who might have filed 10 times the number of valid signatures, might get challenged, and it might be weeks before they can officially be on the ballot -- or they might get thrown off altogether.

Welcome to Chicago!

A lot of people have filed to be on the February municipal election ballot. Across 50 wards, 252 candidates filed for alderman -- an average of over five per ward. Sixteen candidates filed in the 7th Ward alone. Many of the people who filed will not actually be on the ballot, though.

Under Illinois law, a candidate who makes a proper filing will be on the ballot unless he or she is challenged, and that challenge is sustained by an electoral board. A "proper filing" is really nothing more than a Statement of Candidacy, though. Other paperwork could be missing, and there could be far fewer signatures than necessary. This is how that strangest of loopholes comes in - if you file only your own signature, but nobody challenges your paperwork, you're on the ballot!

A challenge -- formally an "objection" -- must be filed by an eligible voter who resides in the same jurisdiction. That means you can't challenge the petitions for a candidate who filed for 14th Ward Alderman if you live in the 37th Ward. For the 2015 municipal elections, all challenges must be filed by 5pm on Wednesday, Dec. 3.

Expect a significant number of petitions to be challenged. In particular, expect many, many challenges against candidates running on the South and West Sides. The average number of candidates is highest in minority wards, even though those are the hardest wards to meet the requirements in. Some of those candidates will simply not have enough signatures. But some of those candidates will have collected a lot of signatures, and will have tried very hard to conform to the law -- and will get kicked off the ballot anyway, because they can't afford high-flying election law attorneys.

The process is arcane and intimidating. Even many seasoned attorneys shy away from election law. But it is one of the main ways in which entrenched politicians retain control. The easiest way to stay in office is to kick any would-be opponents off the ballot. Sometimes, the mere threat is enough to dissuade people from even trying. Candidates need to have an idea what to expect, and need to try their best to be prepared to defend their petitions.

As a former long-time chair of the Illinois Green Party, I have been involved in numerous challenges. The first time I tried to run for office, when I lived in Normal in 2002, I was thrown off the ballot for McLean County Court on a ridiculous technicality. I learned then that any kind of third party, independent, maverick, outsider or any other kind of set of candidates who try to run against whomever is in power, simply must themselves be informed, or have close access to people who are informed about the nuances of the Election Code, and specifically about how to avoid getting thrown off the ballot.

The objection process usually goes like this:

First, an obscure body called the Chicago Officers Electoral Board will assign the case to a hearing officer. The Chicago Officers Electoral Board is technically composed of the Mayor, City Clerk, and an Alderman, but customarily those people appoint someone else to serve in their stead. In other words, Rahm Emanuel could technically sit on the body for every single decision -- but he won't.

Next, the hearing officer may wind up accepting a flurry of legal motions. Assuming that the hearing officer doesn't accept something called a Motion to Strike, the hearing will go on.

Then, if the challenge involved individual signatures, the matter will go to a process called a "binder check," whereby a representative of the candidate and a representative of the objector will sit with an employee of the Chicago Board of Elections and review signatures one by one. Usually such processes do not last too long for aldermanic races but such processes could involve numerous computers at once and last multiple days.

Eventually, after the binder check, the hearing officer will consider the totality of evidence, including the findings from the binder check, during a semi-formal hearing; and will subsequently issue a recommendation.

Finally, the Chicago Officers Electoral Board will issue a formal ruling. While it is possible to rule otherwise, the hearing officer's recommendation is almost always accepted.

And beyond finally, any decision of the Chicago Officers Electoral Board can be appealed to Cook County Circuit Court. Some cases may drag on for months after the election is actually over -- but these are the exceptions.

Many challenge processes end before the final step because a candidate who clearly lacks enough valid signatures will withdraw, or an objector will withdraw the challenge if the binder check did not go their way.

There are numerous theoretical grounds for an objection. Very generally, those grounds fall into one of five realms:

Outright Fraud. The claim here might be that signatures were photocopied, or that signatures were forged, or any number of other allegedly intentional deceptions. I found a petition earlier this year with four sheets completed and 40 additional sheets that were just copies of the first four, and that's not even the worst I have personally seen. Most challenges are not based on claims of outright fraud, though.

General Candidate Deficiency. Any number of things could be alleged: the candidate does not live at the address given; the candidate has not lived in the district for long enough; the candidate owes money to the city and should therefore be disqualified; and a lot of similar issues.

General Paperwork Deficiency. This is the "did not dot the i and did not cross the t" category. Issues might include: failure to include one or more forms; improper language on one or more forms; failure to number pages; or other similar types of problems. The most common general deficiency would be insufficient valid signatures, either facially (fewer total signatures submitted than valid signatures required) or because a number of submitted signatures are invalid, and therefore the total number of valid signatures are insufficient (more on this below.) But a lot of crazy things could wind up here. Once a candidate was challenged for affixing his petitions with a paper clip instead of a staple -- and the case went all the way to the state appellate court.

Objections Against Specific Petition Sheets. Every single petition sheet must be notarized. The boilerplate language is often unfamiliar even to notaries, though. Notaries will frequently screw up the notarization -- and that can get an entire sheet tossed out. Challenges can also be lodged based on some perceived deficiency with the circulator of a sheet, such as the circulator not residing where he or she claimed. This is the main approach the Republicans tried to use to throw the Libertarians off the ballot this past election.

Objections Against Specific Signatures. Most challenges involve an argument that there are insufficient valid signatures. Reasons why a signature might be invalid include: the signer resides outside of the district; the signer is not registered to vote at the address listed; the signer printed in the signature column and signed in the printed name column; the signer signed some other sheet; the signer signed for a different candidate in the same race; or the signature is "not genuine," i.e., the claim is that someone besides the person named actually signed the petition.

Certainly some of these kinds of challenges are legitimate -- if someone lives outside of the district, their signature isn't going to count. But some of them are more dubious. In 2006, Rich Whitney was the Green Party candidate for Governor. His own signature was challenged for being "not genuine." He himself was seated at the computer terminal when his signature came up. And the image that came up on the computer of his signature was indeed his signature -- but distended, as though it had been scanned poorly. And so even with the candidate/signer sitting right there, the board official still ruled that the signature was somehow not genuine.

A more recent pernicious approach involves a circulator telling a voter they can sign more than one petition, and then exploiting that to get the voter's signature thrown off some other candidate's petition. Formal complaints have been filed against people working for two incumbents -- 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore and 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno -- involving alleged incidents like this.

Because this is the first election after the ward boundaries were redrawn, the signature requirement is the same across all wards, even though some wards have far more voters than others. In addition, this is the first election where the signature requirement is pegged to four percent of the previous vote total. Previously, the number was two percent, but the General Assembly and Governor Pat Quinn doubled the requirement in 2013.

In 2011, 4,872 votes were cast in the 12th ward on the Southwest Side. Two percent of that number would have been 98. To collect 473 valid signatures in that ward -- which is shaped mostly the same -- is an incredibly difficult task.

Increasingly, candidates are aware how the law can be used against them by better-funded and better-connected opponents. More candidates will have their petitions reviewed by attorneys, and some candidates have collected more than five times the required number of signatures to defend against challenges. Of course, thorough review and collecting many more signatures won't necessarily prevent a challenge. It can be a significant resource waste to be dragged through an objection process even if you know you're going to win. But being better prepared can save a lot of grief.

In the aforementioned 2006 election, the Green Party submitted about 39,300 signatures, needing 25,000 valid signatures to be on the ballot. The Democrats challenged about 26,000 of the submitted signatures. Expecting that we would be challenged, we pioneered a preemptive approach. Our signatures were on over 4,100 petition sheets. We scanned all of them, and then merged them into PDFs of 10 sheets each. Then we emailed the PDFs to volunteers across the country, and transcribed every single signature we could read.

Then we took it one step farther and built a series of database queries to directly compare the transcribed signatures against the actual election rolls. Through this process we were able to not only improve the quality of the transcription, but even to assign the actual Voter ID to many of the signatures. When the binder check process was called off, we were sitting on over 27,500 valid signatures -- meaning we had defeated over half of the individual signature challenges.

That approach -- transcribing signatures and comparing against the voter rolls -- is what candidates should be doing right now. Sitting back and waiting for the challenge to be brought to you, and then being overwhelmed by slick Machine attorneys on a first name basis with the hearing officers, is not a great way to defend yourself.

Don't be surprised, then, when a couple of dozen candidates who filed don't actually make it to the ballot. Even candidates who tried to do everything right will get run over by a system that treats outsiders like fresh meat.

The flipside is that with more and more candidates aware of these processes, the better able some will be to fend off flippant challenges. And with the aldermanic races, the tolerance for typical Machine tactics seems to be waning in some areas, making it possible that these typical objection approaches will become actual campaign issues in some races.

If you're itching to see "democracy in action," head to the Chicago Board of Elections the week before Christmas, and look at the hectic room full of people fighting over the validity of individual signatures. The scene is one of the saddest indictments of how government functions in Chicago.

The good news is that you might have options in February after all. Your next door neighbor might be the guy who filed a single signature and did not get challenged.

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Casey / December 2, 2014 8:12 AM

I say if a candidate cannot follow the law, they SHOULD be kicked off the ballot.

Anne Marie Miles / December 2, 2014 10:05 AM

I am a candidate for Alderman in the Fifth Ward. Last time my own signature was challenged, although the hearing officer did find in my favor.

Chris / December 4, 2014 4:08 PM

It's always nice to give attorneys some extra work. Never fun to read through them.

Sorry about the activists in the 22nd Ward who helped a young guy get signatures signed, who didn't read through all the guidelines and failed to bind the petitions. And it appears that Adolfo has a lot of time on his hands in attempting to challenged established election law instead of working to get himself elected.

Mark / December 7, 2014 4:45 PM

Most of the people challenging others' signatures are minions of people like Rahm, Burke, Madigan, Mell, etc. These people do not value democracy. They are only serving their own interests to the detriment of society at large.

Kimberley Hamilton / December 10, 2014 7:46 PM

Phil, You documented the process and outcomes almost to perfection. After spending today at the election Board looking over 89% of my candidate contested signatures, this is the dirtiest game in town. She was smart enough to anticipate what was coming and had all the signatures reviewed before being submitted. Still some hired " I am just a dummy hired to sit here" guy objected to almost every one. No kidding, he was so dumb, he just blurted that out! It's the Chicago Way! Can't wait for the closing act....

Nate / December 16, 2014 9:56 AM

Here's something I don't understand. Officially, the last day for the Board of Elections to certify candidate names is Dec. 18. Why, then, are some of the hearings schedule for after that date? Can those people still defeat the challenges and get on the ballot?

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