Is a longstanding Chicago political tradition on its way out?

Objections to candidate nominating petitions reach a 40-year low in this year’s municipal election cycle.

Rod Sawyer mayoral petitions
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), right, watches as his nominating petitions to get his name on the ballot as candidate for mayor of Chicago are processed by elections officials on Nov. 28, 2022. An objection to Sawyer's petitions was filed but later dropped. In all, 113 such objections were filed against candidates in this year's municipal election, the lowest such figure since 1983, shows a WBEZ analysis. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times
Rod Sawyer mayoral petitions
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), right, watches as his nominating petitions to get his name on the ballot as candidate for mayor of Chicago are processed by elections officials on Nov. 28, 2022. An objection to Sawyer's petitions was filed but later dropped. In all, 113 such objections were filed against candidates in this year's municipal election, the lowest such figure since 1983, shows a WBEZ analysis. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Is a longstanding Chicago political tradition on its way out?

Objections to candidate nominating petitions reach a 40-year low in this year’s municipal election cycle.

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Every municipal election, candidates, lawyers and election officials alike gear up for a weekslong slog of resolving dozens — even hundreds, in some years — of nominating petition challenges, a longstanding Chicago tradition to knock candidates off the ballot for things like not having enough valid signatures.

But many were surprised this election cycle to find things were much quieter than they had expected.

Just 113 objections were filed against candidates’ nominating petitions for the 2023 municipal elections. That’s the lowest number of objections for a municipal election since 1983, when 105 objections were filed, according to a WBEZ analysis of historical objection cases heard by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

“I think everybody was surprised at how few challenges there were,” said longtime Chicago election attorney Michael Dorf.

Keep in mind, the 2023 municipal election also includes the newly created civilian oversight councils for each of the city’s 22 police districts. For each district council, three individuals will be elected to serve four-year terms.

Excluding the objections for candidates seeking these new offices, there were a combined total of just 84 objections in mayoral, aldermanic, city clerk and city treasurer races for the 2023 election, making it the lowest total for such races in the last 40 years, including 1983, the earliest year for which city election data were available.

In aldermanic races, a total of 78 objections were filed, also the lowest number in the last 40 years. Typically, aldermanic races have drawn more than double that number of objections.

“Certainly we were prepared for a lot more objections given the history and how many we generally received each municipal election cycle in the past, especially with the new elected office,” said Max Bever, director of public information for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

So far, about 40% of all the objection cases have been resolved, according to the elections board website. A total of 17 candidates are now off the ballot, including mayoral candidate Johnny Logalbo for not having enough valid signatures. Six of those 17 candidates voluntarily withdrew from their respective races. Mayoral candidate Frederick Collins is also expected to be knocked off the ballot this month for lacking the required number of valid signatures, according to Bever.

The electoral board, which consists of three commissioners appointed by the Circuit Court of Cook County, has the final vote on objection cases. The board is aiming to wrap decisions on all the cases by mid-January, pending any remaining cases where the decision is appealed and goes up to the circuit courts, said Bever.

The city’s municipal general election will be held on Feb. 28. Runoff elections, for races where no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, will be held on April 4.

Why are there fewer objections this year?

There’s no definitive answer for the dip in objection cases this election cycle, and it’s difficult to tell if it’s a trend that will stick, but officials who’ve been involved in the process for decades have offered up a few possible explanations.

Some say it could be due to fewer people running for office, but that isn’t the case for Chicago this year. The number of candidate filings for 2023 is roughly in line with the numbers for each of the last four municipal elections, according to a WBEZ analysis of candidate filings. More than 300 candidates filed to run for the 2023 election.

Dorf, the election attorney, said the optimist in him thinks it’s because “people are tired of the gamesmanship.” He has represented candidates and objectors for more than 20 years and is representing Mayor Lori Lightfoot this year.

The amount of time and money that goes into objections can be draining for campaigns, Dorf said. And, in some cases, shotgun objections “are filed by people who know that they’re not going to win, and they do it in order to take away resources from the candidate they’re challenging,” he said.

Dorf is among a relatively small community of election lawyers in Chicago who work on candidates’ nominating petitions and objection filings. Dorf said other election lawyers have told him they’ve started to take a harder stance on objection cases, even telling some clients they won’t file an objection if they believe the case is frivolous or one that won’t prevail.

“I think that’s a wonderful thing, and I hope that really is the reason,” Dorf said.

Burt Odelson, an election attorney with more than 50 years of experience, thinks the days of filing shotgun objections and “ferocious hand-to-hand combat” over ballot objections are on the decline.

One potential indication times are different is three high-profile mayoral objections were recently withdrawn. Last week, former state Sen. Rickey Hendon dropped his objection to Ald. Roderick Sawyer’s petition signatures for mayor after a heated three-hour-long hearing. The week before, Hendon, an adviser to mayoral candidate Willie Wilson’s campaign, and Kevin Hobby, an ally of mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green, chose to withdraw dueling petition objections.

“Those days of [shotgun objections] are waning,” said Odelson, who is also Sawyer’s lawyer. “The hearing officers and the electoral boards who are hearing these cases are not allowing those frivolous objections to stand anymore, so really what you’re doing is wasting your own time, as well as your candidate’s time.”

On the flip side, Dorf thinks electoral boards have gotten more sympathetic to keeping candidates on the ballot — for example, ruling in favor of a candidate who met the signature requirement but misnumbered a few signature sheets, an error which could nullify all the signatures included on those sheets — which may discourage objectors from filing more frivolous objections in the first place.

Another theory is that fewer incumbents running means fewer objections filed. And there are fewer incumbent aldermen — current aldermen who were either elected or appointed to their seats — running in 2023 than in the past two election cycles. There are 11 wards where there is no incumbent running this year.

“Generally, a lot of challenges are filed by incumbents to try to remove opponents or challengers from the ballot so that they can run unopposed…having a smaller field makes it less likely that they get taken to a runoff,” said Pericles Abbasi, an election lawyer who represents many objectors and candidates.

Incumbents are typically the ones who can afford the necessary lawyers and campaign workers to file objections, said Dick Simpson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago and a former two-term alderman in the 44th Ward during the 1970s. Usually it’s the perceived weaker candidates — first-time candidates or those who are less well-funded — that are targeted for objection cases, said Simpson. Those are also the candidates less likely to file petition challenges themselves.

“To file a meaningful objection, you need to probably have both a team of people to go over the petitions and lawyers. If you’re a first-time candidate, you’re probably mostly hoping just to get on the ballot yourself and not trying to knock anyone off,” said Simpson.

Nominating petition objections: how it all works

To get on the ballot, candidates need to have a minimum number of valid signatures from registered voters on their nominating petitions. The minimum varies by office: 12,500 signatures for mayor, city clerk and treasurer; 473 signatures for aldermen; and at least 0.5% of the number of registered voters in the district for police district council races.

Once candidates submit their nominating petitions, objectors — any registered voter in Chicago for citywide elections or who live within the respective ward or district — have a week to comb through petitions and identify reasons, down to the smallest minutiae, to throw out a candidate’s signatures. If enough signatures are deemed ineligible, it could drop a candidate’s total of valid signatures below the minimum required and disqualify them from the race.

The most common allegations are related to signatures: They aren’t genuine, they don’t belong to registered voters who live in the district, voters signed petitions for multiple candidates in the same ward and so on. Objectors go line by line, marking up an appendix form that’s essentially a copy of the candidate’s petition, but has spaces next to each signature for objectors to check off a reason why they think the signature is invalid.

Hundreds of signatures can get disqualified en masse because the pages on which they appear were not consecutively numbered. A full sheet of signatures can also be nullified if the sheet was not properly notarized or if it contained designations of a candidate’s political party. Such designations are prohibited on nonpartisan municipal election nominating petitions.

Candidates can also get knocked for not filing their Statement of Economic Interest with the county clerk, but in many cases it comes down to how many valid signatures they have remaining after going through the ringer of hearings and records exams.

“It’s usually for mistakes that rookies make, or [because] they simply don’t have enough resources to get enough petition signatures,” said Simpson.

Each objection filing is assigned a case number and often goes through several hearings in front of a hearing officer. Some cases involve one or more records exams to check if voter signatures or addresses match a statewide voter registration database. Sometimes, a “forensic handwriting expert” is requested (Chicago is the only electoral board that contracts such experts, according to Bever), to judge whether a signature is genuine or not.

It’s a process that often stretches over weeks. Once it’s complete, the hearing officer writes a recommendation to the election commissioners. For each case, the board votes to determine whether the candidate facing the objection is on or off the ballot.

In the 2015 municipal election, roughly half the candidates who filed petitions faced objections, and nearly one-third of them didn’t make the ballot after the objections process was over, according to a WBEZ analysis. Of the candidates who faced objections, 17 withdrew from their respective races either prior to or during the objections process.

In 2019, nearly half the candidates who filed petitions faced objections, and about one-fifth of them were removed from the ballot. That year, 18 candidates withdrew.

Sometimes, the objections themselves are fraudulent. In one extreme case, an objection challenged signatures that didn’t even exist. In 2019, longtime 13th Ward Ald. Marty Quinn challenged the signatures of his opponent, 19-year-old college student David Krupa, by strong-arming voters to sign 2,796 affidavits revoking their signatures for Krupa, despite Krupa only submitting 1,729 signatures.

“That was the most outrageous challenge I’d ever seen,” said Dorf, who represented Krupa at the time. Krupa stayed on the ballot but lost by a 72-percentage-point margin to Quinn.

“Politics ain’t beanbag”

Challenging candidate nominating petitions is a tradition as old as Chicago politics.

“There’s a very famous saying … politics ain’t beanbag. And in Chicago, it’s hardball politics, and you have to be prepared to fail and fend off not only challenges but other problems,” said Simpson.

Examples abound of aldermen, many supported by the Democratic Party machine, who ran unopposed because all their challengers got booted off the ballot.

In 2003, longtime 7th Ward Ald. and machine ally Bill Beavers ran unopposed after one of his campaign workers, Irene Smith, successfully kicked off all six of Beavers’s challengers. In 2015, 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas ran unopposed after two of his supporters successfully booted challenger and union organizer Pete DeMay from the ballot.

Mayoral race objections can get pretty heated, too. In Rahm Emanuel’s first run for mayor in 2011, his candidacy drew more than 30 objections, including one that spurred the notorious challenge to Emanuel’s Chicago residency.

The challenge argued Emanuel didn’t meet the residency requirement for Chicago mayor because of his time spent in Washington, D.C., as the White House chief of staff in the months leading up to the election. An appellate court ruled Emanuel was ineligible to run, but the decision was reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court, which found that Emanuel never displayed an intention to leave his permanent Chicago home when he took the Washington job. Overall, 2011 drew more than 400 objections — the most of any municipal election in the last 40 years. As Dorf recalls, it was a year that was “awful for all of us.”

Even former President Barack Obama used petition challenges to knock off all his rivals, including longtime Chicago activist and incumbent state Sen. Alice Palmer, to ease his path to claim a state Senate spot in 1996.

Nominating petition objection hearing
A hearing for an objection to 19th district police district council candidates is held on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Amy Qin / WBEZ News

Police district candidates get objections, too

Despite being brand new, objectors didn’t shy away from the police district council races. A total of 29 objections were filed against candidates in more than half the city’s police districts.

The police district councils were created in a 2021 city ordinance after a yearslong effort to give civilians more oversight of the Chicago Police Department. In each of the city’s 22 police districts, three council members will be elected to serve as liaisons between the community and the police.

Most of the objections in police district council races cite routine matters like not having enough signatures or petition signers not living in the district.

But some objections take issue with how groups of candidates have filed, and the outcomes of those objections could impact how candidates run for police district councils in the future.

At stake in the 19th, 20th and 24th districts is whether groups of individuals seeking those council seats are allowed to file one set of nominating petition signatures representing three candidates as a slate rather than each candidate filing their own set of signatures on separate nominating petitions.

“The question is whether that’s allowable under both the election code and the ordinance that created these police district councils,” said Abbasi, who is representing objectors to the nominating petitions of three-person candidate slates seeking council seats in the 19th, 20th and 24th police districts. Mitchell D. Rose, the objector to the 24th district slate of candidates, is himself a candidate in the 24th district and supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, Abbasi said.

During a hearing for an objection to the slate of Maurilio Garcia, Jenny Schaffer and Sam Schoenburg running in the 19th district, their lawyer, Ed Mullen, argued “there is no limitation in the statute with respect to the ability to run as a slate on a single nominating petition.” Mullen also noted the slate’s combined nominating petition included more than three times the minimum number of signatures required to make the ballot in the 19th district.

“We certainly think that running together allows for greater representation and a better, stronger District Council that can do the public outreach work it’s designed to do,” said Schoenburg, who volunteered to get the police district council ordinance passed last year.

Amy Qin is WBEZ’s data reporter. Follow her @amyqin12. WBEZ’s Matt Kiefer and Mariah Woelfel contributed to this story.