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David Orr’s Office Has Glaring Conflict of Interest as Primary Games Begin

Daniel J. Kelley 29 November 2007 2 Comments

Filing as a candidate is just the beginning, staying on the ballot is the real test

The silly season is upon us.

No, I am not referring to the Christmas shopping rush as the holidays approach. The primary election, on February 5, 2008. As I write this, candidates for delegates and alternates are hurrying to gather voter signatures on their nominating petitions before the filing deadline. Republican delegates and alternates will be the last candidates to file under the new election laws. The winning candidates will attend the national nominating conventions to be held next summer.

For the first time in decades, the Illinois primary election may be meaningful to the nomination process of presidential candidates. Our election is now early enough to affect the outcome. It means the presidential candidates are likely to have to spend some real dollars campaigning in Illinois which involves setting up offices, installing telephone lines, purchasing advertising and choosing local committee leaders to get out the vote. Political consultants and vote hustlers are salivating at the prospect of scoring some dollars from the well funded favorites.

In many instances, based upon the new amendments to the Illinois Election Code which were enacted to advance the date of the primary, hundreds of other candidates have already filed their nominating petitions for state, county, judicial and party offices. Many of these candidates have already secured their place on the primary ballot while others are facing challenges to the legal sufficiency of their nominating petitions.

Candidates for nomination must collect signatures from registered, legal voters who are residents of the districts where the elections are to be held. The signatures must be genuine and collected in the manner prescribed by law and the petition forms must be properly formatted to comply with the appropriate statutes. Petition circulators must appear before a notary public and swear upon oath that the petitions were gathered legally and within the prescribed time frames established for the election. The petitions must be accompanied by sworn statements of candidacy which set forth the qualifications of the prospective candidates to seek the offices under consideration. The stated purpose of such laws governing nominating petitions is to demonstrate that prospective candidates enjoy a modicum of voter support to justify the cost of printing their names on primary ballots and that only qualified candidates file for various offices.

Naturally, if an aspiring candidate does not have sufficient valid signatures on his nominating petitions, he can be removed from the ballot. Gathering petitions poses no great difficulty for party regulars, but it can be a time consuming chore for first candidates who are not allied with the major parties.

Collecting signatures becomes more of a task when one considers that many people may not reside within a given election district or are not properly registered to vote. Objections on these two bases are commonplace. In other instances, objections may be made to the authenticity of the handwriting on the petition form not comparing to the voter’s signature appearing on the permanent registration record maintained by the electoral authorities. If the paperwork submitted is insufficient or demonstrates a pattern of fraud and disregard for the election statutes, the candidates are removed from the ballot and will not have their names printed. In extreme instances, referrals are made to the State’s Attorney for possible criminal prosecutions based upon forgery if page after page of petition sheets contain signatures that are not genuine.

Increasingly, it is becoming the norm for powerful, well funded candidates to challenge the petitions of lesser candidates. Even if the objections are unsuccessful, less affluent candidates will see their meager resources expended in legal proceedings conducted before electoral boards, circuit court judges and appellate court justices. With an objection pending, it sometimes becomes impossible for a challenged candidate to campaign for office and to conduct all important fundraising activities. Election challenges must be disposed of quickly and the potential cost of attorney’s fees necessary to defend against a frivolous or serious challenge can be prohibitively expensive. Although judicial review of electoral board decisions is available, oftentimes, the damage is done by the time that candidates are restored to their rightful places on the ballot mere days and sometimes hours before the polls open. Many poorly financed candidates simply drop out of their races when challenged. They cannot effectively wage a two front war in both the courts and in the election precincts.

Electoral board proceedings are seldom reported in detail in the major newspapers. Suburban newspapers provide some coverage, but the process is still something of a mystery to laymen. The Illinois Election Code set forth detailed rules concerning which electoral boards shall pass upon objections to nominating petitions in given cases. The Illinois State Board of Elections handles cases involving multiple counties, county electoral boards handle cases within one county, municipal boards and special district boards may be impaneled as necessary. Certain cities with large populations have boards of election commissioners to deal with cases occurring exclusively within their jurisdictions. Chicago is one such city with a three member board of election commissioners. The political composition of board of elections is determined with respect to the voting strength of the major political parties within a jurisdiction: Chicago has two Democrats and one Republican serving on its board.

For the past several years, the Cook County Clerk, David D. Orr, has been advocating that his office, which supervises elections in suburban Cook County precincts, should have its electoral board powers expanded. Orr wants to eliminate municipal and special district electoral boards in the suburbs and have those objection cases reassigned to an enlarged and expanded county officers electoral board. While municipal officers electoral boards are chosen from local elected officials within the election districts in an order determined by election statutes Orr claims such boards are inherently biased and consumed with politics. He recommends that the Cook County Officers Electoral Board composed of the county clerk, the state’s attorney and the circuit court clerk ( or their designated employees sitting in for the actual officials) assume all of the duties of the local electoral boards.

Of course, such a dramatic change would mean an bigger budget for election operations for the county clerk.

Despite Orr’s claim that his office would provide a neutral and unbiased forum for the processing of such objections, I have my doubts.

One of Orr’s election supervisors is one Dennis M. Magee. In addition to scheduling records examinations to compare challenged signatures on nominating petitions to permanent registration records maintained by the clerk, Magee is an elected local official and party committeeman in his own right. Magee is the Village President of Merrionette Park, a three precinct municipal anomaly that was incorporated as a village in 1947after the city of Chicago neglected to annex the area. Additionally, Magee serves as the Worth township Democratic committeeman . He ran unopposed for both offices; receiving 247 votes for village president on April 5, 2005 and 12,920 votes for township Committeeman on March 21, 2006.

Owing to an omission in the Illinois Election Code, Magee’s moonlighting from his day job as an elections supervisor is technically legal, but it certainly does create the appearance of impropriety. No similar employee of the Illinois state board of elections or the Chicago board of election commissioners are permitted to hold elective office or engage in partisan political activities. In fact, they are expressly prohibited from holding political offices. Magee has been criticized for playing favorites when objections involve upstart candidates who are of interest to political powerbrokers and incumbents from his neck of the woods. At election time, Magee is responsible for delivering the votes to Democratic candidates in the 165 election precincts of Worth township. Worth is a competitive township that has elected both Democratic and Republican candidates to various offices in the past. .

As recently as last week, Orr who served briefly as interim mayor before the Chicago city council named Eugene Sawyer to succeed the late Harold Washington, called for political reforms. But he would do well by cleaning his own house and reassigning a political activist to a less sensitive position where his decisions do not interfere with the fundamental right of persons to nominate candidates and vote for candidates of their own choosing.

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Daniel J. Kelley is an attorney and a contributor to The Chicago Daily Observer. He appeared in election law cases as an attorney and served as an electoral board member by special judicial appointment.

2 Comments »

  • RJE (author) said:

    Here, like any other walk of life, the big fish eat the little fish.

  • whit bissel (author) said:

    You made some excellent observations when he was running for alderman in 1987!

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