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Chicago Candidates Need Loads of Petition Signatures To Land On The Ballot, But Is That Fair?

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Katherine Nagasawa

There’s a ritual that takes place outside supermarkets and restaurants and ‘L’ stops in the months before a Chicago municipal election. People hold out a clip board and ask passersby to sign a petition sheet for some candidate running for elected office.

Up until a couple of months ago, Kelli Cousins signed every one of these petition sheets that came her way because, she says, “I am doing my civic duty.”

But then Kelli found out that a registered voter can only sign one petition per candidate for the offices of mayor, treasurer, alderman, or clerk. Kelli did more research and realized that the process overall is super confusing. So she asked Curious City:

How does Chicago’s petition process work for municipal elections and who does it benefit or hurt?

The petition process is what ultimately determines who does and does not end up on the ballot, and some critics say there is a long tradition in Chicago of candidates using the process to try to keep their political opponents from getting on the ballot in the first place. Critics also say it’s a system that favors Machine politics and those who hold power. Defenders say the system weeds out unqualified candidates.

To answer Kelli’s first question about how the petition process works, we turned to election lawyers Burt Odelson, Ed Mullen, Michael Dorf, and Richard Means, who laid it out in these steps:

So that’s how the petition process works. But Kelli also wanted to know how the process benefits or harms candidates and voters. To find the answer, Curious City turned to election attorneys Ed Mullen, Richard Means and Burt Odelson, as well as UIC professor and former Ald. Dick Simpson, and Niketa Brar, director of Chicago United for Equity. They weighed in on whether the process helps particular candidates more than others and how it affects voters.

What about the voters?

Niketa Brar, director of Chicago United for Equity, advocates for electoral reform and studies ballot access in municipal elections. She says the challenge process contributes to voter apathy because when people have to make a choice about whether to take time out from their busy schedules to come out and vote, they are less likely to do so if there is only one candidate on the ballot.

“When you give people the choice of one incumbent on the ballot, why would I turn out to vote? It makes less sense for me, right?” Brar says.

But election lawyer Burt Odelson disagrees because he says these are simply the rules.

“If your petitions don't meet the requirements set forth in the law, then you shouldn't be able to run for office because unqualified candidates who don't file in accordance with the law shouldn't be on the ballot. ... We weed out the people who are not qualified and don't follow the rules. … So the objection process is a good thing,” he says.

But the process in Chicago can be particularly burdensome compared to other cities. In Chicago, a mayoral candidate needs to collect 12,500 signatures to get on the ballot. In Los Angeles, a city with more residents than Chicago, a mayoral candidate only needs 500 signatures. And Chicago is just one of a handful of cities, Brar says, where candidates actually use the challenge process to try to keep their opponents from getting onto the ballot in the first place.

In the 2007, 2011, and 2015 municipal elections, there were at least seven aldermanic races with only one candidate on the ballot. Former Ald. Dick Simpson says when you have wards with only one candidate, ultimately it hurts the voters.

“As long as we have 2 or 3 or 5 candidates on a ballot on a ward, it should give voters a range of choice,” he says. “If all of the other candidates are knocked off the ballot, then something went wrong with the process. … Voters become discouraged and apathetic and don't vote in elections if there's only one candidate. So it suppresses democracy.”

More about our questioner

(Courtesy Annie Nguyen)

Kelli Cousins is a long time Chicago resident who has volunteered for a wide variety of local and and national political campaigns through canvassing, writing postcards, working the phones, and fundraising.

When she learned that a registered voter could only sign one petition for one candidate for each elected office, she says she was pretty upset this was the case.

“In an ideal world, I'd like everyone to be on the ballot and invited to the debates,” she says.

Since asking her question to Curious City, Kelli has started collecting signatures for Ald. Amaya Pawar, who is running for city treasurer. Now, when she canvasses for signatures, Kelli tells people about the unique signature requirement.

Outside of politics, Kelli volunteered at an assisted living facility for the visually impaired called Friedman Place and at the Alexian Brothers home for formerly homeless folks living with HIV.

Annie Nguyen is a freelance reporter in Chicago and a current fellow at City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab. You can follow her at @nguyen_ap.

Additional research and support from Aaron Allen, Marley Arechiga, Kim Bellware, Bettina Chang, Samantha Smylie, and Michael Romain.

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