Kadner: Current rules make local elections anything but fair for all
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org January 8, 2013 8:46PM
Cook County Clerk David Orr
Updated: February 10, 2013 6:02PM
It’s just not fair. That’s what many first-time candidates for mayor, alderman, village trustee and school board are saying throughout the Southland.
“As an independent candidate for village clerk in Midlothian, I would like you to be aware that individuals that are associated with the Village Pride Party have challenged my petitions as well as petitions for Sharon Rybak, an independent running for mayor,” and independents running for trustee, Michael Kohlstedt wrote in an email.
The challenge to those candidates’ petitions came Tuesday night before the village’s three-member election board, which is headed by Terry Stephens, the current mayor and leader of the Village Pride ticket.
“It’s the appearance of impropriety that bothers people,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr, the chief election officer for the suburbs. “Most of the local election authorities do their jobs very well and handle the hearings fairly. But some do not. And it’s the fairness issue that bothers people the most. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
Orr has lobbied to change the state law that allows mayors and school board presidents to sit in judgment of people who want to oust them from office.
As it stands, it’s relatively simple for a group of political leaders to kick opponents off the ballot by upholding challenges to their petitions.
The opponents can appeal such rulings in court, but that takes time and money — money that most people running for village trustee or school board simply can’t afford.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Edmund Ponce de Leon recently gave opponents of local election boards some ammunition when he ruled that Cicero President Larry Dominick and three of his political allies could not rule on objections filed against candidates in the upcoming town election.
In an unprecedented ruling, the judge disqualified Cicero’s electoral board that included Dominick and replaced it with three court-appointed attorneys who do not live in Cicero.
Orr would like to see a permanent change in state law regarding candidate challenges for municipal and school district elections in Cook County. A three-member county electoral board already rules on challenges for fire, park and library districts.
That board includes someone appointed by Orr (an election law attorney), a member of the state’s attorney’s office and an appointee of the circuit court clerk. The panel not only has an appearance of fairness but holds hearings in a timely manner.
The way the system works now, local election boards can procrastinate on setting a hearing date and then delay a ruling for weeks, waiting until the last possible moment to kick a candidate off a ballot.
“They don’t even have to tell us what their schedule is for hearings,” Orr said. “There’s no legal requirement for that. At the very least, I think we should have a central website where candidates and the public could go to see when local election authorities are holding their hearings and a location where they would post their rulings.”
Delaying the process can prove costly to taxpayers — the Cook County clerk prints ballots, only to be told later that a court has overruled a local election board’s decision to kick a candidate off the ballot.
“There’s a financial benefit to having this process expedited,” Orr said.
But it’s the fairness issue that seems obvious to anyone who has ever faced the system for the first time.
There you are, a resident of a community who decides to run for office because you believe the reigning mayor and village board are incompetent, corrupt or just plain stupid.
And as you knock on doors in your suburb, asking people to sign your petitions for office, you basically say as much to your neighbors.
You file your election petitions and discover that a member of the incumbent party, or a relative or friend of theirs, has challenged your petitions.
And then you discover that those who control the town or school district are the very people who will decide whether you can run for office.
Before Stephens held the Midlothian board’s hearing Tuesday night, his opponents were all riled up, telling me they were ready to raise a ruckus because the incumbents were going to steal the election.
Stephens shouldn’t be placed in that position. And neither should the people who are running against his party.
The Illinois election code says a municipal election board is composed of the mayor, clerk and the longest-serving member of the city council or village board. School district electoral boards consist of the board president, board secretary and the longest-serving board member.
Quite often, these people are all members of the same political party.
In the event that any member of an election board is a candidate for the office for which an objection is filed, that person is not supposed to sit on the board.
But there’s still a feeling that a buddy system exists and that trustees or aldermen will protect their mayor and vice versa — or punish their political opponents.
So why hasn’t the Legislature changed the law to give Orr’s office the authority to oversee local election challenges?
“The people in power don’t want to give up that power, and they have a lot of influence in Springfield,” Orr said.
Election law attorneys I have spoken with about this issue agree with Orr.
Voters must to feel that the election process is fair and impartial. That’s the only way a democracy can work.
At its most grass-roots level, suburban school and municipal elections, the election process appears biased.
That’s wrong. And it ought to be fixed.