Cook County Record

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

7th Circuit affirms dismissal of constitutional challenge to election law lodged by unsuccessful Chicago mayoral candidates

By Jonathan Bilyk | May 2, 2014

A federal appeals panel has upheld an Illinois law requiring candidates for the office of Chicago mayor and other citywide offices to obtain signatures from 12,500 eligible voters in order to get their name on the ballot.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals late last month dismissed a challenge to the law raised by a group of failed Chicago mayoral candidates after determining the state's rules governing the nomination of candidates for citywide election are constitutional.

The April 25 opinion, authored by Judge Joel M. Flaum, with Judges William J. Bauer and David F. Hamilton concurring, affirmed a decision rendered by U.S. District Court Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr., who also found the law constitutional and dismissed the case last year.

The challenge to the law arose in 2011, as the City of Chicago prepared to elect a new mayor to replace retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley.

In January of that year, four would-be mayoral candidates --Howard Ray, Jay Stone, William Walls and Frederick White-- asked a federal judge to slap a halt on election proceedings after their nominating petitions were rejected by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners for failure to collect enough valid signatures.

Under state law, candidates for Chicago mayor, clerk and treasurer must gather at least 12,500 signatures from eligible voters, or about 1 percent of the 1.3 million total registered voters in the city, for their names to be placed on the ballot for any particular office.

The signatures must all be collected within the 90 days preceding the filing deadline, and none of the signatures can be from a voter who also signed a petition for another candidate seeking the same office in that election cycle.

Twenty candidates submitted nominating petitions in 2011, and nine candidates, including eventual winner and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, secured a spot on the ballot.

The federal court declined to intervene and in February 2011, Emanuel was elected mayor.

In continuing to pursue their case against the city's election board, the four plaintiffs claimed the law was unconstitutional, as several provisions, including the 12,500-signature rule, the 90-day time limit and the one-person-one-signature rule, all imposed undue burdens on potential candidates’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The federal trial judge, however, found that the election requirements did not fall outside the spectrum of similar laws already upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts, and as such, determined the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim under the law, requiring their suit to be dismissed.

They appealed, and a panel of the Seventh Circuit heard arguments in the case earlier this year.

In its decision, the federal panel agreed with Dow, noting that the plaintiffs faced an abundance of precedent weighted against them and had based their case on shaky legal ground.

The judges conceded some large cities, including Los Angeles, have more lenient laws governing candidate ballot placement, and that Chicago’s “approach undoubtedly places some burden on candidates and their supporters, who must work to gather the necessary signatures.”

But none of the requirements here were “excessive” or unreasonably burdensome, Flaum wrote for the panel.

He went on to explain that the Supreme Court has upheld petition laws in other states requiring candidates to amass signatures equivalent to as much as 5 percent of the total number of eligible voters, far higher than the 1 percent required under Illinois law.

The nation's high court has also upheld laws requiring candidates to secure as many as 22,000 signatures in just 55 days, the opinion states, further noting that the rule limiting the ability of voters to sign just one petition for any particular office merely reinforces the “one-person one-vote” standard.

“Chicago’s signature requirement, even if it is stricter than other large cities’ approaches,  fits comfortably within the range of schemes that our court and the Supreme Court have previously held to be constitutional,” Flaum wrote for the panel.

The panel also found the ballot restrictions, in principle, are constitutional, as a requirement like the city’s signature rule “directly furthers the state’s legitimate interests in avoiding ballot overcrowding and preventing voter confusion.”

“The scheme leaves room for reasonably diligent candidates to get on the ballot,” Flaum wrote. “These interests are strong enough to justify the reasonable, nondiscriminatory burden on the plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.”

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