Chicago Politicians Pack Petitions — And Hand Warmers — To Get On February Ballot | WBEZ
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Chicago Politicians Pack Petitions — And Hand Warmers — To Get On February Ballot

The crowd came early.

Some people in line to turn in petitions to get on the ballot for the February city election even camped out the night before just to be at the front.

“About 10 o’clock last night, me and my crew,” said Patricia Horton, a candidate for city clerk. She was the first person standing at the foot of the door to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners intake room in downtown Chicago on Monday morning.

Monday officially kicked off the short, but intense municipal campaign election season in Chicago. It was the first day candidates could submit the necessary number of signatures needed to get on the ballot for the Feb. 26 citywide elections.

The doors to the underground pedway at 69 West Washington Street didn’t open until 6 a.m., so Horton and the dozens of candidates at the front of the line had to sleep outside on Washington to get that coveted spot.

“[We had] the hand warmers, everything, the blankets, whole works,” she said.

Just a few feet down the line, mayoral candidate Willie Wilson and his team eagerly shared photos of their tent setup.

“We were the first ones [in the mayor’s race] with the signatures, and we were the first ones here to [have them] checked out,” said Wilson, who said he had about 60,000 signatures on hand.

Candidates for the three citywide offices of mayor, clerk and treasurer need to collect 12,500 voter signatures to get on the ballot, while aldermanic candidates need 473. The start of petition filing marks an early test for the 20 or so candidates vying for Chicago’s open mayoral seat, since Rahm Emanuel’s surprise September announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election.

On Monday, it was also a chance for a bit of politicking.

Several eager aldermanic candidates from the Southwest Side cheered and chanted, “Brand New Council! Brand New Council.”

One of those chanting was Cutberto "Berto" Aguayo, a candidate running in the 15th Ward. 

“I think there is a lot of energy building up in the city to have a brand new council. I think there is a record number of people that are running for office this year in Chicago, specifically young people, millennials,” Aguayo said. “I think it talks about the energy and the next generation and wave of leaders that really want to take ownership over their streets, over their wards.”

For campaigns, the process of filing ballot petitions is an opportunity for a political show of force. Candidates routinely show up with many times the number of required signatures, in the event that the validity of those signatures is challenged by an opponent.

On Monday, backers of mayoral hopeful and Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle showed up with a knee-high pile of petitions, neatly stacked on a dolly cart.

Preckwinkle said she’s turning in 60,000 signatures, while mayoral candidate Paul Vallas said he’s handing in 50,000. Wilson claims he gathered about twice that number, but threw out about half of them because they might have not survived legal challenges.

Punctuality is also important when the stakes are high, especially in a crowded field like the 2019 mayor’s race.

The coveted top spot on the ballot is reserved only for those in line by 9 a.m., when the Chicago Board of Elections opens. If more than one candidate for a race makes it by that time, all are automatically entered into a lottery for that spot.

Another popular strategy is to wait until the final signature day on Nov. 26th.

All who file within the last hour on that day are entered in a separate lottery for the second most coveted spot: the bottom of the ticket.

Jim Allen, a spokesman with the Chicago Board of Elections, said they added that 60-minute window to prevent what had essentially become a game of chicken.

“We used to have that game,” said Allen, “where candidates sat at the door saying, ‘No, after you, after you, after you.’”

Many candidates have taken the city to federal court to try and lower the number of voters’ signatures required to get on the ballot. None has been successful.

Critics of Illinois’ ballot laws argue the state’s signature threshold is too high, and favors established political parties that have lots of money and armies of loyal campaign workers. But defenders say the persnickety process of gathering voter signatures that will survive legal challenges is an early test of a campaign’s organization and viability.

“Maybe 12,500 is too much, but that’s up to the legislature to decide,” said Allen.

Laws governing ballot access in Illinois are set by the General Assembly. The signature requirement to run for mayor used to be twice as much, he said.

Petition week is just the beginning of what will be a grueling winter for candidates.

Once the signatures sheets are filed, they’re made public to anyone who wants to inspect and challenge their authenticity. Then campaigns will go through the laborious process of challenging the validity of the signatures gathered by their opponents, all in an effort to knock them below the required threshold to have their names appear on the ballot.

In 2015, the board received about 180 objection letters. In 2011, the last time Chicago had an open seat for mayor, it got more than 400.

When Rahm Emanuel first ran for mayor in 2011, a residency challenge to his candidacy made its all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in favor of allowing him to run.

The board certifies the ballot on Dec. 20th. Marisol Hernandez, the chairwoman for the Chicago Board of Elections, said on Monday the board is confident they will meet that deadline.

Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified 15th Ward aldermanic candidate Cutberto Aguayo.

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