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Ballot-Access Survey Responses PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 29 September 2010 07:52

In conjunction with an article on ballot access in Illinois, the River Cities’ Reader sent out an e-mail survey to third-party officials and candidates. Below are the unedited responses we received covering thee parties: Constitution, Green, and Libertarian.

Our survey included one overarching question: Is the Illinois ballot-access system fair and reasonable? If not, how would you like to see it changed?

We also included five more-specific questions:

1) Is the 25,000-signature threshold for new political parties a reasonable standard? If not, what number of signatures would you prefer?

2) Do you support a filing-fee alternative to petition signatures? If so, what amount would be reasonable?

3) In your experience, does the Illinois State Board of Elections handle petition challenges fairly and equitably? Please elaborate on any experiences good or bad.

4) What changes, if any, would you like to see made to the petition-challenge process?

5) Have the time and resources required to gather signatures and fight petition challenges hampered your party’s ability to campaign, either this year or in the past? If so, in what ways?

Julie Fox, Libertarian Candidate for Comptroller

1) The Illinois Constitution states that “All elections shall be free and equal.” The number of signatures required for third party and independent candidates should be the same as those for established parties in the state. The 5,000 signatures required for established parties is much more reasonable that the current requirement, but still higher than signature requirements for established parties in many other states.

In addition, I do not feel that the requirement for non-established parties to run slates is fair or equal. It puts requirements on third parties that do not exist for established parties. A 2,000 signature requirement for each statewide candidate, as is the case in Wisconsin, is a reasonable alternative.

2) I support having an option for candidates to either submit petition signatures or pay a filing fee. I believe a $500 filing fee for state assembly candidates, $1,000 fee for statewide candidates, and a $1,500 fee for U.S. Congressional candidates are reasonable amounts.

3) The State Board of Elections handled challenges to the Libertarian Party in 2002 and 2010 fairly. I do not feel that they handled our 1998 petition challenge fairly, when they deemed all of our approximately 60,000 signatures invalid due to fraud being associated with a much smaller number of them, a decision which had no precedent at the time.

While the Illinois SBE has acted fairly in its dealings with Libertarian Party candidates in our two most recent petition challenges, they are bound by Illinois election law, which allows any individual to issue an objection without being required to disclose evidence for their allegations. In addition, objectors are not required to disclose who they are acting in behalf of. The LP and the public have a right to know when the major parties are attempting to hurt voter choice by forcing other candidates off the ballot.

4) I believe we should eliminate the challenge process entirely. The State Board of Elections should be the ones to determine if a candidate’s name should be taken off the ballot due to fraud or insufficient number of signatures. In North Carolina ballot status is determined by the State Board of Elections at the county level.

5) The large signature requirement has hampered our party’s ability to campaign year after year. The petition challenges we have faced in a number of those years have also hampered our ability to campaign in a big way. As a candidate, I saw first-hand how it affects individual campaigns. Time is taken away from campaign activities to be spent on petitioning and fighting challenges. Donors are hesitant to give money and volunteers are hesitant to give time until they know that a candidate will be on the ballot. Funds that a candidate would be using to run their campaign are instead diverted to funding petition contractors and attorneys. The challenge process on top of the large signature requirements not only hampers our party’s ability to campaign , it also makes it harder to recruit candidates.

The limited amount of time left to campaign once a candidate finally receives the word that they are officially on the ballot also hurts a candidate considerably. A candidate isn’t going to spend additional funds on campaign materials until they know that their name will be on the ballot. This year, for example, it was August 27 when we finally received the SBE’s ruling. Candidates in other parties already have yard signs and other materials in circulation at the time when third party candidates are just receiving the word that we will be on the ballot.

Lex Green, Libertarian Candidate for Governor

Our ballot access system is not fair, reasonable or equal. We need to change to a straight fee, equal to all for a particular office. I would accept a fee or signature equivalent option.

1) 25,000 is an needlessly high threshold. The number of signatures may be different for different offices, but the current number of 5,000 imposed upon established parties for state wide office is acceptable.

2) Yes. For statewide office $5000 would be a good number.

3) I enjoyed my time with the employees of the ISBoE. They were courteous and attentive to their jobs. Overall it was not a pleasant experience, but the employees there were fun to talk with.

4) Only candidates, or principles who can show injury, should be able to challenge.

5) Yes. Our party suffered in terms of press coverage and campaign donations because of the uncertainty of our ballot standing. We then entered the race with fewer resources, and now have to catch up on name recognition.

Steve Hellin, Communications Director of the Illinois Libertarian Party

The official policy of the Libertarian Party of Illinois with respect to ballot access is: “Current ballot access laws in Illinois oppress political challengers and waste taxpayer dollars. The LP Illinois supports replacing our ballot access labyrinth with a modest filing fee system that is fair to all candidates, regardless of party affiliation.”

1) The Illinois Constitution contains: “All elections shall be free and equal.” The number of signatures required for 3rd party candidates should be the same as established parties - currently 5,000 for statewide offices.

2) Yes, reasonable would be $100 for local office, $500 for a district office, and $1000 for state-wide office.

3) Yes, the State Board of Elections handled challenges fairly, but they are bound by Illinois election law which is already unfair. For example, any individual concerned citizen can issue a challenge - they are not required to disclose that they are acting on behalf of a major party. We did ask for sanctions to be leveled against the objectors in our case and were denied.

4) Challenges should only be issued by other candidates - at least let the opposition publicly declare that they are the ones trying to subvert voter choice. Remove the option for random individuals to launch a challenge. Hold the challengers financially responsible for introducing frivolous challenges. For example, if they contend that 10,000 signatures are invalid, and it turns out that only a 300 were invalid, there should be some sort of financial penalty. We would also support eliminating the challenge process entirely. The State Board of Elections can determine on their own if blatant fraud has been committed. and if not ballot access should be granted.

Note that this year there were 8 “new party” or independent candidates for US Senate in 2010. Only 1 survived the ballot access process, Libertarian Mike Labno.

Also note that the challenge process effectively turns the 25,000 requirement into a 50,000 requirement to account for potential invalid signatures

5) Absolutely. We staffed the challenge process with 12 volunteers for 6 days. This created a financial burden for many in terms of lost wages or vacation time. The candidates are limited in their ability to fund-raise and attract media attention while their ballot status is unknown. This gives the major parties a head start in campaigning.

Phil Huckelberry, Chair of the Illinois Green Party

In addition to being Chair of the Illinois Green Party, I am a former Co-Chair of the Green Party of the United States, remain Co-Chair of the Ballot Access Committee of the national party organization, and am on the board of COFOE (Coalition for Free and Open Elections), the leading national organization working to improve ballot access.

1) The 25,000 signature threshold needs to be understood in context. First, the petitioning period in Illinois is only 90 days – a much more narrow window than in most states. (Texas and New York have shorter windows.) Second, the overage needed in Illinois is much greater than the overage typically needed in other states, because of the challenge system. In most states, petitions, once submitted, are simply reviewed by a relevant agency, instead of being subject to a quasi-legal administrative challenge where they have to be defended individually. Third, some of the other requirements – that a full slate be submitted, that all petition sheets be notarized – are also not common in other states, and increase the overall difficulty level.

The signature threshold should be lowered so as to be consistent with the requirement for established party candidates, therefore 5,000 signatures. The petitioning window should also be expanded – for both primary petitions and general election petitions. I would recommend 180 days. The notarization requirement should be eliminated, or at least replaced with something where circulators need only have a single document notarized instead of every sheet they circulate. The full slate requirement should be eliminated. And the challenge system should be eliminated, which I’ll explain in greater length below.

2) First, if there were a filing-fee alternative, there would still need to be a petitioning alternative. This has been established in case law.

I would be willing to consider a filing-fee alternative, especially for smaller offices, where I think the signature count is less of an impediment than the confusing paperwork. I am not completely sold on the concept because I believe a filing-fee system can create an environment where less wealthy candidates are disadvantaged. But states which have filing-fee systems appear to not only have better functioning election processes, but also ones which cost much less in taxpayer money, since agencies are freed up from dealing with petition checking, and can actually make money via the fees.

3) I think the question is too narrow, and needs to be expanded to consider whether all of the various bodies which may consider petition challenges will consider those challenges fairly and equitably.

Even answering the question narrowly, the answer is a resounding No. I say this even though I have come to have a fairly high opinion of many of the ISBE staffers. The problem, in short, is that there are no formal administrative rules which actually govern the conduct of the challenge process. The rules are always technically adopted anew by the various boards, and so those rules aren’t actually codified. The quasi-legal proceedings tend to require that a candidate retain an attorney, which is completely unfair in and of itself. And in the conduct of binder checks, boards too often place the burden of proof upon the candidate, when the entire process is designed such that the burden of proof is supposed to rest with the objector.

In my personal experiences dealing with the ISBE on petition challenges, I’ve felt that the staff have handled the situations about as fairly and equitably as they could, and I wouldn’t care to disparage them. But they’re operating within a context which is inherently unfair.

We’ve had numerous experiences, most notably in 2006 when the Democrats filed a frivolous challenge against our state slate petition. We submitted 39,300 signatures when 25,000 were required. We estimate that the challenge wasted $800,000 of taxpayer money. Although we won, and although generally speaking we found the staff we encountered to be fair and equitable, the entire process was insane, requiring a dozen volunteers to spend a couple of weeks sitting through binder checks in Springfield and Chicago. There’s nothing remotely fair about requiring candidates and their supporters to go through this madness.

One point which should be stressed here is that there is nothing in state statutes providing for the binder check process currently employed by ISBE. The various boards could literally enact alternate rules without the underlying law being changed. I challenge forward-thinking election officials to consult with their legal advisors and take the steps of changing the challenge system into one where the election authority checks the signatures themselves, with the benefit of the doubt going to the candidate.

4) It should simply be eliminated. Almost no other state uses a system like this. The Illinois system is the most expensive and most oppressive system for verifying petition conformity used by any state.

If the challenge system is to remain, then it should operate like this: Lower the signature requirements; have all petitions filed with local election authorities instead of being filed with administrative offices (in the case of smaller local offices); use the principle of apparent conformity (if someone submits 4 signatures when 1,000 are needed, the petition is thrown out directly, without a challenge being necessary); and if a petition is in apparent conformity, and is nevertheless challenged, then the verification should be conducted by the election authority, with instructions to give the candidate the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, many of the side issues which tend to bring on challenges should be eliminated, including issues pertaining to notarization (by eliminating notarization); issues pertaining to ability to run as a candidate of a given party (by eliminating relevant statutes along those lines); etc.

But preferentially, the challenge system would be eliminated altogether, and replaced with simple review by the election authority. This is how most states handle it, and it works much better.

5) One of the best examples I can give is from when I personally ran for State Representative. I submitted 2,550 signatures, collected within 90 days. My volunteer team was very inexperienced and have never experienced anything like that before. They were totally burnt out. Instead of surging in activity and enthusiasm in October, my volunteer base peaked in June, when I basically overextended them.

On a larger scale, this is also what happened to the Green Party in 2006. We poured so much time and energy into the petition process, and then the petition defense process, that it completely distracted us from much of the other work we should have been doing, notably building up a fundraising base. It’s easy to argue that petitioning is the best way to get out and meet voters, but the petitioning process is very different from a Get Out The Vote kind of process.

What I’ve found from years of organizing within the party is that in states with extreme ballot access hurdles, the party has simply never had the ability to develop organically. Attention is put to the mechanics of existence, which may or may not be especially relevant in actually getting someone elected. It’s an absurd approach to democracy.

Michael White, Constitution Party Candidate for Governor

Our Illinois Constitution simply states: “All elections shall be free and equal.” Equal in the idea that all citizens have access to vote. Equal in the notion of One person / One vote. Therefore, when the ballot access system requires an established party candidate to obtain 5,000 petition signatures and a third-party candidate to obtain 25,000 petition signatures, the ballot access system is telling us that each of the 25,000 individuals signing a third-party petition is only worth 1/5 of a person.

Further, the ballot access system thwarts an individual attempt to seek public office. For example, an independent candidate running for Governor must obtain petition signatures within a specified 90-day window. So over the course of 90 days, that individual would have to circulate their petition 16 hours a day, collecting ONE signature every 3 1/2 minutes to obtain the prescribed 25,000 petition signatures. While on the surface, this may seem unrealistic, some third-party candidates are blessed with campaign volunteers that are willing to do some of the heavy lifting required in achieving this herculean task. But that is usually not the end of the of the ballot access process. Let’s presume in our example, that the candidate was able to obtain 25,000 signatures. Once the candidate submits nomination papers which include petition signatures, “citizens” (usually well-paid, established-party attorneys) may challenge the individual petition signatures. So the candidate is required to spend weeks working with the Board of Elections defending their petition signatures in a process sometimes referred to as binder check. And even if the binder check determines that the signature threshold is met, the “citizens” will hire private investigators and hand-writing analysts to question the integrity of the campaign volunteers who helped to obtain the petition signatures. It soon becomes clear that the “citizens’” objective is to make certain that the independent candidate spends valuable campaign time and money defending their nomination paperwork or be denied ballot access.

Because many independent and third-party candidates lack the funding to defend challenges essentially brought against them by the established-party coffers, we rarely see independent and third-party candidates gaining ballot access. Thus, while voters are afforded the opportunity to vote, the ballot access process limits a voter’s ability to choose among any candidate. This is the same as saying, you have the right to vote but someone else is deciding among whom you may choose.

An alternative to the ballot access process is a runoff-like election process whereby every candidate participates in a primary and the candidates with the most votes would proceed to the general election. A limitation of one party-candidate per office will need to be in place to allow independent and third-party candidates a top spot.

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