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The Big Circus: The Greatest Show on Earth Begins on Monday!

Daniel J. Kelley 7 December 2010 No Comment

Some months ago, I was reading the two volume biography of the late Frank O. Lowden, a one time governor of Illinois who had presidential ambitions. One passage concerning Lowden’s early political activities brought a sardonic smile to my face. It described the early efforts of municipal reformers to clean up Chicago politics before the turn of the previous century. A board of election commissioners was created to superintend elections for the City of Chicago. If only those solid citizens could have seen what happened to that august body in the intervening one hundred and twenty so odd years!

On Monday, December 6th, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners will begin conducting its electoral board hearings for the purpose of passing upon objections filed to the legal sufficiency of nominating petitions filed by candidates for election to city offices (mayor, city clerk and treasurer) and the office of alderman in each of the city’s fifty wards. By all accounts, it is going to be one hell of a circus. I am glad that you and I are observing the scene as spectators from the safety of the sidelines. According to a press release issued by the board, a record number of objections have been filed this year. With over four hundred and twenty objections filed this cycle, I wish that I had obtained the contract for printing attorney’s appearance forms or, better yet, the photocopying concession. I might be able to retire after the electoral board sessions conclude sometime in January.

Fortunately, the Chicago Board of Elections has employed a staff of hearing officers to expedite the disposition of its large caseload. For example, attorney Joseph A. Morris will be the hearing officer for the thirty plus residency objections filed in relation to Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral candidacy. Charges of fraud, forgery, falsified affidavits and accusations of persons impersonating notary publics will all be on the program in some of the other cases. Believe me, it is going to get ugly quickly.

The purpose of nominating candidates by means of petitions is to demonstrate that prospective candidates meet the necessary qualifications for holding office and that these same individuals enjoy a modicum of voter support within the election district which would warrant the expense to the public election authorities of printing their names upon the ballot. Various court decisions have held that there is a public policy interest in having ballots of manageable lengths and this requires the exclusion of fringe candidates who are unable to demonstrate a minimum level of voter support. In addition to the petition signature sheets, candidates must file sworn statements of candidacy setting forth their qualifications to hold office. The looming fight over Rahm Emanuel’s candidacy will center upon whether or not he fulfilled the one year residency requirement set forth by the municipal code which is applicable to mayoral candidates. This particular challenge is going to require substantial evidentiary hearings.

Other election jurisdictions outside of Illinois have utilized different methods to determine whether or not candidates merit inclusion upon the ballot. Some states permit candidates to post bonds or cash deposits in order to secure a ballot position. If a candidate receives a sufficient percentage of the total votes cast, the filing fees are refundable. Illinois, however, prefers to have candidates collect petition signature sheets from registered voters.

When the practice of comparing signatures as a means of identifying lawful voters was established, it was probably a great step forward. Prior to this procedure, voters used to have to obtain ballot applications from political party precinct captains. At other times, the political parties had considerable influence over maintaining voter registration lists. As a means of preventing potential election fraud in an era before people routinely carried identification cards and documents, individual signatures were deemed to be sufficiently idiosyncratic as to provide a means of positive voter identification. While this antiquated method probably still has it virtues in the polling places, where the actual applicants for ballots are personally present before the precinct election judges who are checking the voter application signatures against books filled with signatures gleaned from voter registration records, it sometimes more problematic when comparisons are conducted by allegedly disinterested election authority employees examining nominating petition sheets without the actual signatories being present.

I always used to feel sorry for some candidates who were disqualified on the basis of signatures on file with the election authorities not matching the signatures on their petition sheets. For some elderly voters, their permanent voter registration records were signed decades ago (the oldest cards still on active file date back to the 1940s). In some cases, the handwriting of individuals deteriorated with the passage of time and was no longer recognizable when compared with their official signatures. In many other instances, the petition signatures were collected at bus stops, train platforms, outside of local grocery stores or on front porches in frigid weather. A degree of sloppiness may have attended being handed a clipboard to sign. Many otherwise valid signatures have been disallowed solely on the basis of poor penmanship.

Other problems confronting candidates and their volunteers is obtaining signatures from registered voters residing within the proper election district. Many objections are sustained to petitions signed by persons residing outside of the correct district. In an age where many eligible voters are apathetic and fail to register, something encouraged by machine politicians since it increases their power and reduces the likelihood of a revolt at the polls, and many other residents are non-citizens who are ineligible to sign petitions or vote (outside of California, that is), it is highly possible to collect pages of signatures that are invalid for counting purposes. Some of the signers are wholly unaware of the fact that they are ineligible to vote. Others simply failed to reregister after changing addresses — just ask State Representative Deborah Mell (D-40th).

In the past decade and a half, the professional politicians have raised the signature filing requirements considerably. For example, judicial candidates for the circuit court bench in any of the twenty-two downstate circuits need only file a minimum of five hundred valid signatures, but in Cook County (apart from the sub circuits) Democratic candidates needed to file a minimum of 3,268 signatures for the most recent election cycle. Following the traditional rule of thumb that every candidate ought to file twice the statutory minimum on account of possible objections, the ideal number would be in excess of 7,500 signatures.

Petition circulators ordinarily have ninety days in which to collect signatures before the relevant filing period closes. This does not pose much a problem to most of the ward organizations, but for an unaffiliated candidate it can be a huge obstacle to ballot access. Interestingly, a statewide candidate of an established political party seeking such offices as US Senator, Governor, Attorney General, etc., needed only a minimum of 5,000 signatures as compared to 3,268 for a Democratic judicial candidate in Cook County.

Increasing the signature requirements has increased the role of political scalawags in the process as more and more potential candidates have had to hire petition circulators to supplement the work of campaign volunteers. The Democratic Ward Committeeman of the 1st Ward, Jesse Ruben Juarez, operates a political consulting business that specializes in collecting signatures and checking out the petitions of opponents for possible objections. With higher filing minimums, fewer minor candidates can enter Chicago elections and the potential for possible mischief has increased. Suppose an entrenched incumbent candidate sends a few spies into an opponent’s campaign office for the purpose of committing sabotage? How hard would it be to insert some bad petition sheets into a stack of pages to be bundled together and filed with the election authorities immediately before the filing deadline?

Some objections are warranted. One of my favorite election fraud stories concerned a future Chicago mayor, William E. Dever. This native of Woburn, Massachusetts, relocated to Chicago in 1887. Dever worked at a Goose Island tannery, where he earned $4.00 for a nine hour workday, which was considered a good daily wage. After hours, he walked downtown and attended night school at the Chicago College of Law. Following his admission to the bar, Dever entered politics and ran for alderman in the former 17th Ward (the neighborhood comprising the West Town area). A nominating petition objection had to be filed against one of his aldermanic opponents. The entire petition appeared to be signed in the same handwriting and the names of the voters were organized in strict alphabetical order, last name first. Needless to say, the objection to forged signatures was easily sustained.

Those familiar with John Schmidt’s biography of Dever know that he left the City Council after being elected judge (he actually presided over some of the preliminary proceedings in the “Black Sox” trial after the 1919 World Series scandal was exposed), but he is most well known for his single term as mayor during the Prohibition Era. William Hale Thompson, Jr., the Republican who had preceded the Democrat Dever as mayor, came out of retirement and defeated Dever in 1927 mayoral election.

Those types of elections are gone. Since the legislature adopted a non-partisan election process for choosing Chicago city officials during the mid-Nineties, there are no longer party primary elections to nominate candidates for mayor, clerk or treasurer. All of the qualified candidates will compete in the February 22, 2011 election, which will include citywide candidates and aldermanic candidates. If no candidate obtains a majority, a run-off election will be conducted on April 5, 2011 between the two top finishing candidates for each office.

In conclusion, let us return to Frank O. Lowden, the now largely forgotten man who might have been president. Lowden was the son-in-law of George Pullman, an inventor of the railroad sleeping car, having married Pullman’s favorite daughter, Florence. The Hotel Florence in the Pullman historic district was named in her honor. After serving in Congress, Lowden was elected governor in 1916. Breaking with his former allies, Lowden lost the support of the Chicago delegation to the 1920 Republican National Convention. “Big Bill” Thompson denounced Lowden to other delegates at the Chicago Coliseum by declaring simply “His word is no good.” The convention deadlocked between Lowden and General Leonard Wood and out of a smoke filled room at the Blackstone Hotel emerged a dark horse, compromise candidate, US Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Four years later, Harding was dead and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, was seeking a full term. Republican delegates meeting in Cleveland nominated Lowden for vice president, but he declined. Charles G. Dawes of Evanston filled the number two spot. When Coolidge famously chose not to run for the presidency in 1928, Lowden was once again interested in the office, but US Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover ran away from the rest of the field. Lowden was a distant second.

Lowden may have had cause to regret that he had broken with Thompson. Emanuel may have cause to regret that he leased his former Chicago residence on North Hermitage to Rob Halpin when he moved to Washington, D.C.


Daniel J. Kelley is a contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.” He has served as a court appointed member of various municipal electoral boards.

image Frank Lowden with University of Colorado President George Norlin at commencement speech.

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