Ballot disputes heat up races after 15 years

Breanne Gilpatrick

Almost 15 years have passed since an Evanston aldermanic candidate’s place on the ballot has been challenged. But last week two challenges to ballot petitions came from very different sources — one an eight-year alderman trying to clear his path to re-election and another a political foe trying to unseat a sitting alderman.

Evanston’s Electoral Board will hear complaints today disputing the candidacy of Fourth Ward challenger Ryan Garton and Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd).

Garton’s opposition came from Norris Larson, the campaign manager for eight-year incumbent Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th). Jean-Baptiste was challenged by constituent and political opponent Robert Nierodzik.

Today’s hearings mark the first Evanston objections since 1991. But election law experts said although Evanston might have escaped these challenges, state and national political scenes have not.

Election challenges have a long history in places like Chicago that have a tradition of hardball politics, said Kent Redfield, a political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

But the political traditions of individual communities often determine the frequency of challenges, he said.

“There are certain places where it would be considered bad form either because you are violating a gentlemen’s agreement or it’s kind of dirty politics that go against the values of the political community,” Redfield said.

Ballot objections aren’t completely new to Evanston. Sandra W. Gross, a member of the Evanston League of Women Voters and Evanston City Clerk from 1977 to 1985, said she remembers hearing election challenges during her time in office.

“People challenged on all kinds of issues,” Gross said. “For example, obvious issues, that somebody didn’t live in the ward or silly, pickier things like that people abbreviated things that were supposed to be spelled out.”

The complaint filed by Larson against Garton’s Fourth Ward candidacy claims that forms were filled out incorrectly and that signatures on the petition may be illegible or forged. Both Larson and Nierodzik say the candidates did not list the office they are seeking on the petition.

Bernstein’s forms appeared to have been filled in meticulously — the names of the office and election were typed on each petition, the city, state and county were filled in properly, and his petitions displayed the maximum number of signatures allowed. But he did choose “full term” by typing parentheses around the words rather than circling them.

The complicated election forms can cause even veteran aldermen, like Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) to use extra care.

“You feel like you are turning in your taxes when you hand them in to the city clerk,” Wynne said.

Every year candidates are knocked off the ballot for major errors such as including signatures from people outside the district or from people unregistered to vote, Redfield said. But the laws exist to make sure individuals make a “good faith effort,” he said.

“The spirit of the law is not to weed people out for a lot of technicalities,” Redfield said. “But election boards can play hardball just like political parties can play hardball.”

Challenges have become more common at the federal level because of the focus on election procedures after the 2000 presidential election, Redfield said. This trend has filtered down to the municipal level.

Mark McCombs, a Chicago attorney practicing election law, said during the past 15 years increasingly intricate politics have affected objections.

“Where people before were much more content to fight it out at the ballot box, now they’re looking to make sure every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed before they get there,” McCombs said.

McCombs has handled about a dozen ballot objections in his career but said he can’t comment on the validity of the Evanston objections without seeing the claims. How the Evanston political community receives these objections will determine whether they continue to occur, he said.

“I’ve seen it go both ways,” McCombs said, “where voters have said unless you follow proper procedure, then you don’t deserve to be on the ballot. And you have voters that say you’re just winning on technicalities.”

The Daily’s Paul Thissen contributed to this report.

Reach Breanne Gilpatrick at [email protected].