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Guardians of the Castle: How the Political Establishment Restricts Voter Choice PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 29 September 2010 07:53

On the general-election ballot in Illinois, voters will be able to choose from four candidates for U.S. Senate: a Republican, a Democrat, a Green, and a Libertarian.

That might seem like sufficient choice – and it certainly covers a wide political spectrum – but consider that seven candidates were removed by the Illinois State Board of Elections.

That’s because Illinois has put so many barriers between people who want to run for office and the ballot. Established parties – Republicans, Democrats, and Greens presently – need to collect 5,000 valid signatures for their statewide slates. Independent statewide candidates and other parties need to collect five times as many valid signatures: 25,000.

Beyond that, the petitions of third parties and independent candidates are often challenged by people working on behalf of Democratic or Republican organizations. This year, Republicans have been most active in the ballot-access wars, perceiving a threat from several limited-government parties.

These challenges have several effects. First, they make the effective signature threshold much higher. “The challenge process effectively turns the 25,000 requirement into a 50,000 requirement to account for potential[ly] invalid signatures,” wrote Steve Hellin, the communications director for Illinois’ Libertarian Party, in an e-mail.

Second, the financial, human, and time resources required to fight a challenge are significant and come at the expense of traditional campaign activities such as fundraising, advertising, and connecting with voters one-on-one. “Attention is put to the mechanics of existence, which may or may not be especially relevant in actually getting someone elected,” wrote Phil Huckelberry, chair of the Illinois Green Party. “It’s an absurd approach to democracy.”

A Question of Choice

This might seem like a trivial issue, fighting for the right to third place in a winner-takes-all system. But what’s really at stake is voters’ rights – the electoral equivalent of having 11 cereal choices at the grocery store instead of just four.

As attorney Doug Ibendahl wrote in a court filing asking for judicial review of the Constitution Party’s nominating petition: “It can be said with confidence that the right to vote, on the one hand, and the right to seek office, on the other, are among the most cherished in this land. Illinois courts have also observed in a variety of contexts that there is a dual import to ballot access. In McGuire V. Nogaj ... the court observed: ‘The right of a party or an individual to a place on a ballot is entitled to protection and is intertwined with the rights of the voters.’ ... The McGuire court further noted that this state has a policy in ‘favor of a candidate’s eligibility’ ... , and the Illinois Supreme Court has observed that the right of access to the ballot is a substantial one that may not lightly be denied.”

Put simply, a key right of voters is choice on the ballot, one that is severely curtailed by Illinois’ current ballot-access system.

As Michael White, the Constitution Party’s gubernatorial candidate who is now running as a write-in, said in an e-mail: “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.”

Christina M. Tobin, the founder and chair of the nonpartisan Free & Equal Elections Foundation (, said in an interview last week that Illinois is “one of the most restrictive ballot-access states in the United States. ... Having to get 25,000 signatures alone is not an easy thing to do. It can be quite costly.”

Free & Equal doesn’t include Illinois’ among its five “worst state ballot-access laws in America.” That list includes Oklahoma (more than 73,000 signatures required for statewide office in 2010), North Carolina (85,000), and Texas (43,000).

But that doesn’t change the fact that Illinois’ system is onerous for third parties.

Consider Iowa as a contrast. To participate in the primary for one of Iowa’s established political parties for governor or U.S. Senate, one must gather 0.5 percent of the vote total for the party’s last top-of-the-ticket candidate – either governor or president. For 2010, a Republican had to gather 3,412 signatures, a Democrat 4,145. For other statewide offices, the requirement is 1,000 signatures.

The requirement for being nominated by petition for any statewide office: 1,500 signatures.

Iowa’s system is fundamentally fairer than Illinois’ in two ways. First, the threshold for established parties compared to independent candidates is actually higher for governor and U.S. Senate, and similar for other statewide offices. Second, even adjusting for the fact that Illinois has almost four times as many registered voters as Iowa, the number of signatures required for an independent candidacy is more easily attainable in Iowa.