Digital signatures for candidate petitions are no-brainer to improve democracy in Illinois

Challenging petition signatures is a bustling business in Illinois that benefits incumbents, party insiders and wealthy candidates who know how to navigate the petition challenge labyrinth, or can afford to hire those who do.

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Candidates file nominating petitions for the March 2020 primary, at the Cook County Clerk’s office on Nov. 25, 2019.

Candidates file nominating petitions for the March 2020 primary, at the Cook County Clerk’s office on Nov. 25, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It’s 2022. Tourists can visit space. Cars can drive themselves. You can check in with your doctor on Zoom.

Yet if you come across a candidate gathering signatures to get on the ballot for an election in Illinois, you’ll see them carrying a sheaf of dog-eared papers covered in a mess of handwriting.

This is not just an outdated way of doing things. It’s actually a big problem for our democracy.

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For candidates to get their name on the ballot, they have to gather a certain number of signatures from registered voters in the district they’re running in. The number depends on the office, but it can range from a few dozen for a village board seat to thousands for governor.

In Illinois, the signature-gathering process is fraught with pitfalls. There is no immediate way to know if a person you ask for a signature lives in your district or is registered to vote, or whether they wrote their address information correctly. Candidates often collect many more signatures than required, knowing some might get thrown out because the signers were ineligible or there were other problems with the signatures.

And there are strict, elaborate rules about how candidates must fill out and submit the signature forms. If it’s done wrong on even one page, the entire petition can get thrown out and the candidates can lose their chance to be on the ballot.

Anyone can object to a candidate’s petitions, but challenges are often brought by opposing candidates or their allies seeking to kick competitors out of their race. Party machines unleash their lawyers to protect incumbents and oust disfavored candidates.

Challenging petition signatures is a bustling business in Illinois. Challenges are adjudicated by local electoral boards, but decisions can be appealed through the court system. The process can be lengthy, time-consuming and expensive.

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This system benefits incumbents, party insiders and wealthy candidates who know how to navigate the petition challenge labyrinth, or can afford to hire those who do.

It harms candidates who may have great ideas and talent, but who have fewer resources or know-how about how to work the system.

Most importantly, it harms voters. The archaic system creates another costly barrier to public office for candidates who are from diverse backgrounds or independent of party machines. And it deprives Illinoisans of the opportunity to be represented by quality candidates who get kicked off the ballot for silly reasons.

Luckily, there’s a solution. Since 2015, candidates in Denver, Colorado have been able to collect signatures using a tablet, like an iPad, and an application that connects to the voter registration database and can check for common errors. That means that signature-gatherers know on the spot if the person signing is eligible to sign — for example, if they live in the right district and are registered to vote — and if the person provided the right information. The signatures are uploaded to a secure server, so there’s less opportunity for misplacing pages or for tampering.

Arizona has gone further, allowing voters to sign petitions from the comfort of their own home.

Programs like Denver’s have drastically reduced the number of rejected signatures for candidates who use them, from about 30% to just 3%.

In Illinois, that would mean fewer politicized signature challenges and more opportunities for a broad range of candidates to run for office.

Our organization, Reform for Illinois, worked with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy this year to introduce HB 4966, which would allow local election authorities to adopt digital signature programs. Former Cook County Clerk David Orr fought for similar legislation a few years ago, but it went nowhere.

The legislature has a chance to do the right thing now. This is a no-brainer. It would make life easier for candidates and improve representation for our state’s residents.

It’s time to bring Illinois into the 21st century, strengthen our democracy, and adopt this common-sense reform.

Alisa Kaplan is the executive director of Reform for Illinois.

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