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Shaw: Local election boards in serious need of reform

Andy Shaw is president chief executive officer Better Government Association.

Andy Shaw is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association.

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Updated: May 10, 2013 6:27AM



April 9 is Election Day for local government in Illinois, including 500 Cook County taxing bodies — cities, villages, school districts, park districts, library districts, fire protection districts and my favorite poster child for unnecessary bureaucratic waste, townships.

Voter turnout is expected to be low, as usual (about 20 percent), which is one measure of the sad state of democracy in the suburbs, and a reminder that you can’t criticize your local government credibly if you don’t vote.

Another cause for concern is that 1,170 of the 2,000 separate elections on the ballot (that’s 58 percent) have a candidate running unopposed or no candidate at all.

One reason for the lack of competition is that local election boards routinely kick challengers off the ballot for failing to meet technical filing requirements.

Some argue that would-be candidates who can’t follow basic rules aren’t fit for office and shouldn’t be on the ballot.

But that claim loses merit when you consider that local election boards, by law, consist of incumbent officeholders who recoil at the prospect of strong challenges to them or their political allies.

In Cook County, local election boards decide on challenges to candidates for mayor, clerk, city council, village board and school board. Current municipal and school officials get to decide if their potential replacements belong on the ballot.

Ah, the beauty of Illinois’ dysfunctional state laws with their endless conflicts of interest.

This strange system invariably finds challengers being tossed off ballots every political season for reasons that range from the ridiculous to the sublime, with heavy on the former.

In North Riverside, for example, a slate of candidates from the “Transparency & Accountability in Politics Party” is ousted because its name is six words when you count the ampersand. State law allows only five.

And the law says candidates’ nominating petitions must be “securely bound,” so a would-be Glenview school board candidate is knocked off for submitting petition sheets without a paper clip.

Scorned challengers can appeal such goofy decisions in court but that eats up campaign time and is expensive, to the point that many challengers cannot afford to appeal.

Cook County Clerk David Orr has lobbied Springfield for years to abolish local election boards and shift all ballot-access decisions to the county election board, which arbitrates countywide election issues as well as those for smaller taxing districts such as park and library districts.

The county election board members are the county clerk, the circuit court clerk and the state’s attorney or their designated appointees.

They’re also susceptible to partisanship but less so because they have few, if any, personal ties to local races. And they’re versed in election law, not municipal politics, so their decisions are rarely overturned in court.

That’s much different than Berwyn, where the local election board had four of its last five ballot exclusions reversed after judicial review.

So such election reform should be easy, right?

C’mon, this isn’t Oz. It’s Illinois, where local politicians and their lobbyists have infinitely more clout than a do-gooder such as David Orr. His sensible reform proposal goes nowhere every year.

And Orr claims that the stacked deck contributes to the apathy, alienation and disillusionment that drives down voter turnout and keeps people from seeking local office.

“It really sours them and their supporters on what democracy is all about,” Orr said.

OK, but how can we expect state legislators — who can’t figure out how to clean up the pension mess, pay the state’s bills, balance its budget or cut the waste — to care about making democracy work?

It may be Civics 101, but even that’s too advanced for Springfield’s political class.

Andy Shaw is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association.

He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.



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