News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

The first step to toppling a mayor: Getting on the ballot

Mayor Rahm’s challengers will need to collect way more than 12,500 signatures to qualify.

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On election night, I sat in a bar with a few of my lefty friends and somberly watched as one Republican after another rolled to victory across the country.

Among them was the GOP gubernatorial candidate in our state, Bruce Rauner.

In a half-hearted attempt to stave off utter depression, one friend declared, "Well, let's look on the bright side: it can't get worse."

Being Mr. Doom and Gloom, I had to tell him: oh yes, it can.

"How?"

Mayor Emanuel could end up unopposed in the February 24 municipal election.

And then I launched into another discourse on the intricacies of our electoral system.

Yes, it's true—several candidates have announced they're challenging Mayor Emanuel, including Alderman Robert Fioretti and Cook County commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia.

The goal for Emanuel foes is to keep him from getting 50 percent of the votes, forcing him into a runoff against the top challenger.

But just because candidates announce they're running for mayor doesn't automatically mean they'll make the ballot. First they have to gather the valid signatures of at least 12,500 registered Chicago voters.

The first question you're probably asking is why so many signatures are required.

There are two explanations. The official one—which you're supposed to recite in high school civics classes—is that our city's glorious leaders are doing what they can to defend the integrity of our democracy by making certain that only intrepid people with a broad base of support run for mayor.

The real reason—which even elected officials will acknowledge after a few drinks—is to protect incumbents.

That includes the lordship we have in office right now, as well as the one who came before him, Richard M. Daley.

Daley may be gone, but he's not forgotten. Not by governor-elect Rauner, who just appointed Bill Daley, the ex-mayor's investment banker brother, to his transition team.

Proving once again that when it comes to ruling our state there are no Democrats or Republicans—only investment bankers.

Anyway, as recently as 1995, it took only about 3,000 signatures to get on the mayoral ballot, with the exact number based on turnout in the previous election. Election officials raised the number to 25,000 after legislators passed a law making elections for mayor (and alderman) nonpartisan.

In 2002 attorney Frank Avila filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the signature requirement on behalf of several fringe mayoral candidates. Partly because they knew they looked so bad, legislators then halved the requirement to 12,500, calling it reform.

That prompted activist and former mayoral candidate Jay Stone to observe: "If they say it's reform, don't believe them."

Words that apply to pretty much everything that happens in politics around here.

Inquiring minds will want to know how our signature requirement compares to other cities'—as if the foolishness of others somehow justifies our own.

Well, New York City requires 3,750. Los Angeles requires 500 along with a $300 filing fee, or 1,000 signatures with no fee. Chicago doesn't charge a filing fee, but neither does Detroit, and it requires only 500 signatures.

I mention Detroit because mayoral boosters—of which we have many—love to compare us to Detroit, since you can usually count on the Motor City to make us look better.

But we're worse than Detroit, at least with regard to ballot access.

Detroit's current mayor, Mike Duggan, was permitted to run even though he didn't live in the city for a year leading up to the 2013 election, a violation of residency requirements.

Oh, wait—Emanuel didn't live in Chicago in the years leading up to his election either. So forget I mentioned it.

Back to signature requirements: Did I mention that the 12,500 signatures must be "valid"? Well, they must.

And there are many convoluted rules and regulations that eagle-eyed election lawyers can employ to invalidate signatures and knock unsuspecting challengers off the ballot.

It's all part of their effort to defend our democracy by limiting it as much as possible.

For instance, if a voter signs a nominating petition, the signature needs to match the one on his or her voter registration card. If it doesn't, that signature is scratched from the nominating petition.

Get rid of enough signatures and you can bounce the challenger right off of the ballot.

I'll bet you lunch at your favorite Harold's Chicken Shack that Emanuel will have his election lawyer, Michael Kasper, scrutinizing the petitions submitted by Garcia and Fioretti like a mohel getting ready to make a cut.

It's hard to exaggerate the influence of Kasper—who's also the election lawyer for house speaker Michael Madigan—on the hearing officers at the Chicago Board of Elections.

It's like the power the Queen of Diamonds has over the Laurence Harvey character in the Manchurian Candidate. One look at Kasper and hearing officers fall under his spell.

Rule of thumb, if you want to make the ballot, you'd better gather at least 25,000 good signatures.

By the way, don't be surprised if Emanuel gives some of his lesser-known challengers—like activist Amara Enyia and former alderman Robert Shaw—a pass. Even Rahm knows it would look unseemly to run unopposed.

Fioretti's backers tell me they already have all the valid signatures they need.

It's a little tougher for Garcia, who only jumped in the race a few weeks ago. But his backers believe they'll get enough signatures by the November 24 deadline.

As for Mayor Rahm's supporters—they just cackle and rub their hands like Jafar, the evil grand vizier in Aladdin.

Here's my advice, all you wannabe mayors: Challenge Emanuel's petitions! He had to pay people to gather them just like the rest of you. Someone somewhere must have screwed up.

In the meantime, go get a few more signatures. Before it's over, you may need every single one.

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