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Illinois Ballot Rules Pass 7th Circuit Scrutiny

(CN) - The 7th Circuit upheld a requirement for political candidates to get 12,500 valid signatures within a 90-day period to appear on Chicago's mayoral ballot.

Illinois law requires candidates for mayor, city treasurer or city clerk to gather 12,500 valid signatures within a 90-day period. In addition, the law proscribes any single voter from signing more than one nominating petition for the same office in a single election cycle.

Jay Stone, Howard Ray, William Walls and Frederick White were among 20 mayoral hopefuls in Chicago's most recent general election, but Walls was the only one of the four who gathered enough signatures to make the February 2011 ballot. The other three were disqualified.

All four sued, along with voter Denise Denson and a disqualified city clerk candidate, but a federal judge refused to grant them a preliminary injunction in January and the election passed before the interim appeal reached the 7th Circuit.

The incumbent, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, had prevailed; Walls came in sixth; and the federal appeals court dismissed the challenge as moot.

Amendments failed to save the complaint from dismissal back in District Court, and the 7th Circuit affirmed Friday.

Though the ruling heavily leans on Supreme Court and circuit precedent, it notes that there is not litmus-paper test to separate valid from invalid petition requirements. Therefore, "a court must make a practical assessment of the challenged scheme's justifications and effects," Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the three-judge panel.

In enacting the 12,500-signature requirement in August 2005, Illinois appeared to try and "make the electoral process more open, not less," the ruling states.

"Before 2005, interested candidates had to amass twice as many signatures (25,000) to get on the ballot," Flaum added.

The court emphasized that Walls challenged the requirement though he was one of nine mayoral candidates to qualify for the municipal general election in 2011.

"He now represents that complying with the signature requirement, though achievable, was 'onerous and restrictive,'" the decision notes.

Such griping failed to sway the appellate court in Chicago, however.

"In short, the fact that nine candidates satisfied ILCS 20/21-28(b) is powerful evidence that the burden of gathering 12,500 signatures in ninety days is not severe," Flaum wrote.

The panel also highlighted the nonpartisan nature of the law, since candidate must meet the same signature requirement "in the same time frame and from the same pool of voters."

"As compared to a traditional party-primary system, Chicago's ballot access scheme could even be seen as equalizing the burden between entrenched candidates and outsiders, who now stand on the same footing for ballot qualification purposes," Flaum wrote.

The 90-day timeframe furthermore did not strike the panel "as an excessively short time to collect 12,500 signatures, particularly when this schedule applies equally to every candidate."

Indeed, "we previously saw no problem with a ninety-day window to collect 25,000 signatures," Flaum added.

The challengers also failed to topple the one-voter, one-signature rule, with Flaum noting that "the city's nomination scheme applies across the board."

"Every candidate files his or her nominating petition at the same point in the election cycle," Flaum wrote. "As a result, a voter who signs her preferred candidate's petition is not disadvantaged in any other aspect of the electoral process; she simply participates in nominating candidates on par with all eligible voters. In this context, the one-voter, one-signature rule is 'nothing more than a prohibition against any elector's casting more than one vote in the process of nominating candidates for a particular office.'

"Again, nine mayoral candidates, including one of the plaintiffs, successfully qualified for the ballot in the 2011 election - far more than we would expect from an electoral system designed to 'freeze the political status quo,'" Flaum continued. "And Chicago's signature requirement, even if it is stricter than other large cities' approaches, fits comfortably within the range of schemes that our court and the Supreme Court have previously held to be constitutional."

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