The headlines are having fun with stories about getting Kanye West getting on, and then getting tossed off, of ballots across the country. This last week it was our fair state of Illinois. For many people, this might be somewhat confusing. How hard can it be for someone like West to get on the ballot? But those who follow politics in Chicago know that this is a very common thing. It happens all the time.
How common? During the primaries in March, all three candidates for 1st Ward Committeeperson were removed from the ballot. It became a write-in only race. And so what happened with West is very common. It’s also a good illustration of how this process works.
To get on the ballot for President in Illinois, you need 5,000 signatures of valid voters if you are running for the Democratic or Republican nomination. However, to run as an Independent, you need much more – 25,000 signatures. Because of COVID-19, this year a judge ruled that Independent candidates didn’t need as many signatures. West needed just 2,500 to make it on the ballot.
When West submitted his petition package, it was 412 pages containing roughly 3,200 signatures. Three different challenges were quickly filed with the Board of Elections. You can object to signatures, or to entire pages, for a variety of reasons. For example, you can object to duplicates. Or you can object if the signer is not a registered voter. You can also object to the signature itself if you don’t believe it matches the signature on file at the Board of Elections. That’s easy to do when it looks like all of the signatures on a page are the same. For more subtle objections, candidates are known to hire handwriting experts.
Technically, anyone who lives in the district that the candidate is running in can mount a challenge. But usually, that someone is represented by the election lawyer of the candidate making the challenge. In the case of West, challenges were filed by several people, including, Sean Tenner, the 46th Ward Democratic committeeperson.
It is important to note that the Board of Elections does not check to see if a candidate submits enough signatures. They do not check to see if a candidate submits accurate signatures. Only a challenge mounts a review process. That process then goes through the candidate’s petition packet signature by signature. Is the signer a voter? Does their signature match the signature on file at the Board of Elections? Is there a pattern of fraud? In this case, that review process found that West only had 1,300 valid signatures.
The politics around challenging West aside, there is an important lesson here for anyone who wants to run for office in Illinois. First, you need an election lawyer. Your lawyer will help you put together your petition packet and help defend you from any petition challenge. If you are running against an incumbent, keep in mind that you are running against someone with a lot of resources to mount such a challenge.
The single best way, however, to avoid a challenge and to get on the ballot is to make sure you have more signatures that you need, and that you are collecting your signatures from registered voters in your district. Going door to door, with a voter list, is the best way to collect. Gather three times, or four times, as many signatures as you need is good insurance against a challenge.
This is where our inspiration for Petition Atlas came from. We worked on enough campaigns – and checked enough petition sheets against the voter rolls by hand – to know there had to be a better way. This is also, ultimately, about ballot access: the blood sport of filing challenges favors the incumbent. It keeps progressive candidates from running. We are dedicated to helping those candidates do what Kanye West was unable to do: ensure they can be on the ballot in Illinois.