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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ballot Access in Illinois and the Putback Amendment

When most people think of ballot access, the average citizen thinks about complaints from third and fourth parties about how the two major parties are keeping them off the ballot. Ballot access, as the term implies, is the ability for every candidate that's qualified to get on the ballot. In the state of Illinois, ballot access, or lack thereof, is another tenet of the corruption in the political structure.

With ballot access, the issue is most often the political machine challenging the validity of signatures. For every electoral race and every amendment, a certain number of people must sign an initial petition just to get said candidate or amendment on the ballot. The political machine, for both parties, will often have an army of lawyers ready to challenge the validity of enough signatures to force any candidate or amendment below the threshold and force them off the ballot.

Often these challenges are on marginal issues. For instance, my full name is Michael. I don't know exactly what it is on my voter registration card but it's probably Michael. If I were to print my name on a petition as Mike and it's really Michael that signature can be challenged. If I recently moved and accidentally used my previous address, that could be challenged. Even if I simply wrote my information in too sloppy a manner, that could be challenged.

There are all sorts of other technical challenges. For instance, the petition, the binder that a candidate or amendment is required to submit in order to be considered for being on the ballot, must be numbered by pages, and that numbering must be handwritten. So, if a petition isn't numbered, that can be challenged. A petition is supposed to be stapled and so if it is clipped together, that can be challenged. The list goes on and on.

A famous recent case of the issue of ballot access involves Republican State Senate candidate Steve Rauschenberger. In this case, the Democrats are challenging Rauschenberger validity as a Republican. In fact, Rauschenberger is a lifelong Republican. He's held a seat in the State Senate as a Republican from 1993-2007. For the last two years, he was head of the United Republican Fund, a PAC that supports Republican causes.

Democrats are challenging his validity as a Republican because in the last primary he voted in the Democratic side. He did this because his sister, herself a Democrat, was running in a race and it was the only way he could vote for her. Still, the Democrats are using this vote to challenge his validity as a Republican.

The most infamous case was in 1996 when then State Senatorial candidate Barack Obama was able to throw each of his four opponents in the Democratic primary by challenging each of their ballots. He invested in a top notch electoral lawyer and then ran an electoral war of attrition until each of his candidates ran out of money and he wound up running in the primaries unopposed. Before you rush to demonize Obama for this, just remember that he played fairly by the rules created. (though it's not exactly a "new kind of politics")

Dick Mell's daughter Deborah is also running for local office. She recently moved and hasn't updated her voter registration card. So, her ballot is being challenged based on the fact that her address is incorrect. Of course, she actually has until the 2nd of January to update her address.

Finally, the folks at Free and Equal Elections have recently identified another case of ballot access shenanigans, this time in the Illinois Democratic Gubernatorial primary.

This is happening in the case of William “Dock” Walls, III, a Democratic candidate for Governor. Walls submitted almost 10,000 signatures from Illinois voters to gain ballot access. The requirement is 5,000 valid signatures.

The political operatives connected to incumbent Governor Pat Quinn then went to work and claimed over half of the signatures Walls submitted were invalid.

Andrew Spiegel, an attorney with Free and Equal, Inc., challenged this claim. In response, the Board unilaterally decided to recount all the official numbers, including the total number of signatures submitted by the Walls campaign.

In a letter to the Board, Spiegel noted, “Rules and Procedures adopted by the Board require that Official numbers not properly and specifically challenged by either party are considered to be valid.”

The examples go on and on. What happens is that often primaries are open and there's no competition for incumbents. Furthermore, it limits the access of third parties to get on the ballot. Third parties are already at a disadvantage. They have less funds, less organizing, and less volunteers. It's hard enough for them to get on the ballot. It's that much harder when political machines then challenge them after they've gotten over the hump. Furthermore, the whole process is totally cynical. Republicans will most often challenge a potential Libertarian candidate and Democrats will often challenge the Green party candidate because both pose a threat to their party.

The Putback amendment, an amendment I featured last week, attempts to address the flaws in the statewide system. It does this by limiting ballot challenges to one of three principles: fraud, deception, and illegibility. By fraud, this means that a challenge has to prove that signatures were granted fraudulently. For instance, if me and my friends took out the phone book and filled in the names and signatures to get over the hump, that would be an example of fraud. Second, it's deception. In other words, if I went around telling people that I was trying to put an amendment on the ballot honoring Abe Lincoln and in reality this is an amendment to make gay marriage legal, that would be an example of deception. Illegibility means that it's not clear what I am running for. If I don't identify the office or the primary I want to run in, I would be ineligible. (if I can't do this, it's probably best I not run) The standard will be the preponderance of the evidence, the same standard applied to civil court cases.

No more will a ballot be challenged because Michael went by Mike, unless a lawyer can show, by a preponderence of the evidence, that this was done in willful attempt to defraud. No more can the petition be challenged, unless a lawyer can prove, by a preponderence of the evidence, that the discrepancy was done as part of a wilfull attempt to deceive. No more will technical challenges to petitions be made about numbering and lettering unless those mistakes make it illegible what exactly a candidate is trying to do. So, staple, paperclip, it will no longer matter.

Here's the full text of the Putback amendment. In the third part of this feature, I will look at the issue of gerrymandering. Here's part one of the analysis.

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