Four ways to make our elections more fair

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The polling station at Columbia College on election day, March 20th, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

To begin to repair our state, we should start repairing our elections. We need fair political maps and fair ballot access.

Now, our election processes are broken and backward. Consider that:


  • After each census, one major political party or the other retreats to a back room and draws new political maps that will protect their own power and their own majority. It’s about them, not us. They draw boundaries that stifle competition for incumbents. Our votes can become meaningless.
  • To run for Chicago mayor, a candidate must collect and have notarized signatures from 12,500 registered voters who have not signed anyone else’s candidate petitions. But to run for governor, a candidate needs only 5,000 signatures.
  • The mayoral election will be completed in seven weeks, but several candidates still do not know whether they’ve made the ballot because of challenges to their petition signatures, allowed because of the creation of elaborate and byzantine rules political powers set up that require candidates to spend time and money on lawyers who spar with each other and this system.
  • There’s even a candidate running for trustee in suburban Barrington Hills who might not make it onto the ballot because it’s alleged she collected too many signatures from voters.


This is not how we ought to be running our democracies.

In California, your residency is verified, you turn in some signatures and you’re generally good to go. There is no political-legal complex, no need to spend months trying to access the ballot.

In Denver, election authorities developed and launched e-Sign, a mobile app that allows petition gatherers to verify someone’s a registered voter at a particular address before they sign a candidate’s petition. That innovation alone has dramatically reduced the numbers of challenges to candidates’ signatures, and its technology could be used here.

Plenty of other states have moved their elections so candidates don’t have to fight for access to the ballot in December and January, and voters aren’t expected to trudge to polling places in cold and snowy February.

It was heartening to see 21 candidates were invested enough to put themselves out there to file to run for Chicago mayor, but several of them saw or still are seeing up close and personal just how hardball the game of getting on the ballot is in Illinois.

In the latest episode of the podcast, “Neal Runs for Mayor,” Neal Sales-Griffin talks about how he’s had to spend practically every waking minute in the past month fighting to get on the ballot. Sales-Griffin’s supporters collected 18,229 signatures, but 27,210 objections were filed over those signatures. You can file more than one objection per signature. To have a shot at the ballot, Sales-Griffin is contemplating the possibility that he and his supporters will need to find nearly 2,400 people who signed his petitions and get them to sign a second affidavit confirming they indeed signed the first time. All those affidavits will need to be notarized.

One of Sales-Griffin’s opponents and his lawyers even objected to his mother having signed his candidate petitions. “Dude, I can’t make this up. I can’t make this up,” he says on the podcast.

Chicago activist Ja’Mal Green, 23, gave up his bid for mayor just before the new year.

“It’s not even about the 12,500 signatures,” Green told reporters as he threw in the towel. “It’s about you having manpower to have people down here at the Board of Elections for 11 hours a day. It’s about having tens of thousands of dollars to pay lawyers to continue to go to court and continue fighting for you. This process is not fair for the regular person.”

The process was created by incumbent political powers and their lawyers to stymie regular people. They rig the maps, they rig access to the ballot and while candidates fight for a spot, we hear less and less about what the people who are willing to run might do if they were to win a chance to govern.

Fully implemented automatic voter registration, using technology like Denver’s e-Sign, creating lower and uniform signature requirements, expediting petition challenges and creating an independent redistricting commission would dramatically boost ballot access and competitive elections.

Let’s create a system that is fair for all the regular people.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for government and political reform.

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