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How Did We Get to 12,500?

The number of signatures it takes to get on Chicago's mayoral ballot is three times what it takes in New York. Who benefits?

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Now that Jay Stone's short-lived mayoral campaign is over—he's been knocked off the ballot—it's time to ask what that was all about.

He had no chance of winning: he was running without money, name recognition, or major supporters. And he'd gathered just 246 of the 12,500 signatures needed to get on the ballot.

Stone says that although he really would like to be mayor, he was mainly setting up a court challenge to the signature requirement. Requiring so many signatures "mocks the concept of democracy," he says. "It serves no one's interest other than the machine's."

The son of Bernard Stone, the longtime 50th Ward alderman, Jay Stone is the good-government reformer that his father, a Mayor Daley loyalist, is not. Last week he and four other dark-horse candidates sued the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners in federal court, arguing that requiring 12,500 signatures to get on the ballot for mayor, clerk, or treasurer is "onerous" and "restrictive" and "serves no compelling state interest." The plaintiffs hope to force the General Assembly to radically reduce the number of signatures needed in those three races.

The suit points out that candidates for those positions need to gather more signatures than most candidates for Illinois governor. Only 5,000 signatures are needed to run in the Democratic or Republican gubernatorial primaries, whose winners are automatically on the ballot in the general election. (To get on the ballot in the general election without winning a primary requires 25,000 signatures.) Illinois has four times as many residents as Chicago.

The suit also points out that Chicago requires more nominating signatures than Los Angeles or New York, both of which have more residents. New York requires 3,750; Los Angeles requires 500 along with a $300 filing fee, or 1,000 signatures with no fee. Chicago has no filing fee ,and neither does New York.

As recently as 1995, it took only 2,261 signatures to make the ballot for mayor, clerk, and treasurer. Chicago had a primary in citywide elections then, with the Democrat and Republican winners (and occasionally an independent candidate) opposing each other in a general election. Candidates had to gather the signatures of 2 percent of the citywide vote in their party's previous primary. This meant Democratic candidates needed more signatures than Republicans, since Chicago votes so heavily Democratic. But even the Democrats didn't have to gather anything approaching 12,500 signatures.

In 1986 Daley backed a referendum that sought a switch to nonpartisan elections in the citywide races. (The aldermanic races already were nonpartisan.) But the Illinois Supreme Court barred the proposition, deeming it "fatally vague and ambiguous." The court also noted that if the referendum passed, it would cause the signature minimum to rise to 25,000.

Daley had run for mayor in the Democratic primary in 1983 and split the white vote with incumbent Jane Byrne, clearing the path for Harold Washington to win the nomination. "In the primary system, you didn't need a majority to win—only a plurality," says veteran election lawyer Frank Avila. "If two white candidates split the white vote, the black candidate can win with less than 50 percent by winning most of the black vote. That's how Harold Washington did it in 1983."

In 1995 a bill for nonpartisan Chicago elections—this one pushed by Republicans—passed in Springfield. Republicans hoped that they might actually be able to win an occasional Chicago election if their party affiliation wasn't noted on the ballot.

The change meant no more primaries in Chicago elections beginning in 1999. All candidates now run in one February election without formally declaring a party. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers oppose each other in an April runoff.

The new law, however, didn't stipulate how many petition signatures a candidate needed. Lawyers for the board of elections, based on their reading of Illinois election law and legal precedent, determined that 25,000 signatures were required.

In 2002 Frank Avila sued the board in federal court on behalf of six long-shot candidates, calling the signature requirement "arbitrary and unfair." Four of his clients wanted to run for mayor, and Avila contended that the board had required so many signatures to protect Daley's incumbency. None of the four mayoral hopefuls had gathered the 25,000 signatures, but Daley didn't challenge any of them, and Avila dropped the suit after the board announced the candidates would be on the ballot. Avila and south-side activist Bruce Crosby pressed the state legislature to reduce the requirement, and after the board itself chimed in, in 2005 the legislature halved the minimum number of signatures.

After a candidate files his petitions, his rivals can challenge them. The greater the number of signatures needed, the more material an opponent has for challenges. Overseeing the process are hearing officers who pore over the rule books and review old decisions to determine if a candidate has violated one of the election rules, governing things like how the nomination sheets are bound.

There were a record 426 challenges made this election—including the numerous challenges to mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel's residency. Most challenges are easily resolved—it quickly becomes apparent that the candidate has or doesn't have sufficient valid signatures. But in closer cases, the challenged candidate may have to sit through several hearings conducted by a hearing officer, whose recommendation is sent to the full board of three commissioners, which may hold another hearing. Witnesses may be called in to verify their signatures, with a court reporter transcribing the proceedings.

The board's verdict can be appealed to the circuit court and then to the appellate court; on rare occasions the final decision will be made by the state supreme court. Cases can drag on for weeks, consuming the time and energy of the candidates.

The chief beneficiaries are election lawyers. In the weeks before an election, they're in big demand. But the other beneficiaries are the political bosses, like Daley and house speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan routinely dispatches Michael Kasper, his chief election lawyer, to the aid of candidates loyal to the speaker. Kasper is representing Emanuel in his residency case.

Earlier this year Kasper—representing a south-side voter who had challenged Al Hofeld's nominating petitions—persuaded the board to keep Hofeld off the ballot in the Democratic primary against state senator Kwame Raoul. In the same election Kasper also successfully defended state rep Deb Mell against an attempt to knock her off the ballot. In the aftermath, it's likely that Raoul and Mell will be as loyal to Madigan as, oh, your average alderman is to Mayor Daley.

Stone contends that if it were easier to get on the ballot, the Madigans and Daleys of the world would lose some of their control. "Politicians would feel freer to stand up to Daley and Madigan," says Stone. "If you control who makes the ballot, you control everything."

To bolster his court case, Stone persuaded Frank Coconate, a political maverick from the northwest side, to file for city clerk. Coconate rounded up 61 signatures. On December 6, his ballot bid was challenged by state senator Rickey Hendon, acting on behalf of Patricia Horton, another candidate for clerk.

"At the hearing, Rickey told me, 'nothing personal, Frank,'" says Coconate. "I told him, 'No hard feelings.' I got nothing against Rickey—he's just playing the game." Coconate is awaiting the hearing officer's recommendation.

If a candidate's filing isn't challenged, but it clearly doesn't meet requirements, the election board can bounce the candidate without a hearing. That's what it did with Stone. Stone maintains the board exceeded its authority in doing so, and says he'll appeal on those grounds..

His 246 signatures wouldn't be enough for him to make the ballot even under the rules he proposes: 350 signatures with a filing fee of $350 or 750 with no filing fee.

Jim Allen, spokesman for the Board of Election Commissioners, said he couldn't comment because the suit is pending.   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.

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