Objecting to nominating petitions stifles challengers in Illinois politics


Legislative studies professor Kent Redfield says Illinois' ballot-challenge process is biased in favor of the established political parties.   File photo

It’s a political tactic that’s been used successfully by President Barack Obama as an Illinois state senator, and slates of candidates seeking to retain their incumbencies: file legitimate objections to a rival’s nominating petition and knock that candidate off the ballot track.

GOP candidates seeking election in various offices have found out the hard way that the practice works. Many, in fact, have suffered at the hands of a reasonable sounding objection that forced their removal from the ballot or denied them ballot access despite acquiring the required number of supporting signatures, which must be perfect signatures per Illinois’ exacting nominating petition standards.

Objections that are filed with the State Board of Elections actually threaten spots for a variety of candidates, in turn forcing them to defend their collected signatures against the objections just to stay or get on the ballot. It becomes a costly process for challengers.

“To do this correctly, you’d have to have a lot of experience in terms of the nuances of the process or you’d have to hire or have access to a lawyer who’s an election law specialist or both," Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, told Illinois Business Daily. "That makes it difficult for candidates who don’t have the support of party organizations, who want to run as independents, or people who would like to establish a third-party candidacy."

Redfield, who works with the UIS Institute for Legislative Studies where he has been a research fellow since 1979, said the process – in terms of both the statute and the rules and regulations written by the State Board of Elections – has some very specific requirements and steps that are necessary in order to circulate petitions in order to get the signatures that are required.

Often for independent or third-party candidates, the number of signatures they need to collect is much greater than the number of signatures needed if a person were running as a candidate in one of the nation’s two established political parties.

“The way I would look at it is basically the rules are being written by the Democrats and the Republicans,"

"Obviously, they fight each other all the time and then they’re going to use the rules if they can to knock people off the ballot from the other party," Redfield, who is also director of the Sunshine Project, a campaign finance research project funded by the Joyce Foundation, said. "But the one thing that they do agree on is that they want to essentially take advantage of their monopoly position."

The GOP and the Democrats, he said, are the ones writing the rules and controlling the process so they have made it very difficult for people who are not running with the support or blessing of one of these two established parties and that makes it difficult to get on the ballot.

“If you are an incumbent, the party officials and the party lawyers are going to make sure all your paperwork is in order," Redfield said. "If you’re trying to challenge an incumbent, you probably don’t have access to either the manpower in terms of the volunteers to go out and collect the signatures nor to the expertise in terms of making sure the petitions are in proper order and that they are bound together and filed and that you meet all of the deadlines."

In turn, this is definitely biased in favor of the established political parties and works to the disadvantage of people who either want to challenge the established party in a primary or want to start a third party or want to run as an independent, he said.

“It just makes a huge difference whether you’ve got party support or you don’t have party support,” he added.

Nevertheless, Redfield said the law is there to make sure that there aren't numerous frivolous candidates on the ballot, a fact that’s actually a reasonable public policy objective.

“If you make it unnecessarily complex, if you create a situation in which you can essentially be litigated to death, then that’s frustrating," he said. "The idea is that the political process should be open; that people should expect reasonable standards in terms of people participating."

In the end, if the process discourages participation, then that’s certainly not in the public’s interest, Redfield  said.

“It’s a matter of striking a balance, but the people that are benefiting from the rules are the people writing the rules, which are the established political parties,” he said.

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