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Illinois rules for getting on ballot debated at Seventh Circuit

State election law creates unreasonable hurdles for independent candidates, according to attorneys for a central Illinois man who wasn’t allowed to run for Congress.

CHICAGO (CN) — The Chicago-based Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments Monday in a lawsuit claiming Illinois election law imposes a bar for entry that is unconstitutionally high for candidates outside the Republican-Democrat duopoly.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, a central Illinois man named David Gill, first attempted to run for the state's 13th Congressional District seat in the 2016 election cycle. While organizing his campaign, Gill and several of his volunteers found that they struggled to meet the state's requirements for getting an independent name on the ballot.

In order to run as an independent in Illinois congressional races, a candidate needs to gather a total number of signatures from registered voters in their district that equals or exceeds 5% of the total number of those who voted in the most recent general election. These signatures cannot be collected more than 90 days before the last date for filing a candidate petition.

Gill and his campaign believed they were able to meet these requirements, just barely: He needed 10,754 signatures to qualify, and he and 18 other members of his team secured 11,350 by the time they filed their petition in June 2016. But a petition challenge later that month then dashed Gill's congressional hopes, with an inspection by the State Officers Electoral Board concluding that he and his team had only acquired about 8,500 valid signatures.

Gill and his supporters filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Board of Elections in Springfield federal court two months later, claiming the board had violated Gill's First and 14th Amendment rights in imposing its strict signature-gathering rules. They pointed out that congressional candidates in the Democratic and Republican parties only need the signatures of 0.5% of primary voters in their district.

"For the 13th District, the 739 signatures required for an established party candidate to get on the 2016 primary election ballot represented 0.35% of the number of votes cast in the 2014 general election for that seat," Gill's lawsuit stated.

His arguments did not sway U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce, who found for the Illinois Board of Elections in December 2018. Gill then successfully appealed and the Barack Obama appointee's decision was overturned by a Seventh Circuit order in July 2020. U.S. District Judge Sara Darrow, another Obama appointee in the Central District of Illinois, came to a similar conclusion as Bruce in March 2022, leading to yet another appeal to the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit.

Gill's attorney Oliver Hall argued, both on Monday and his brief to the federal appeals court, that history itself made his client's point. No independent candidate has ever represented Illinois' 13th District, and Gill was barred in his own effort despite getting thousands more signatures than his counterparts in the established parties.

"Since 1890 a candidate has overcome a general election signature requirement of 8,593 or more in only 0.048 percent of the races for Congress – meaning Gill obtained more valid signatures than 99.9 percent of all congressional candidates in American history," Hall wrote in his brief.

The three judges on the appellate panel Monday morning were skeptical. U.S. Circuit Judge Amy St. Eve, a George W. Bush appointee, disputed whether Gill even still had standing to bring suit. After redistricting in 2021, the district Gill sought to represent no longer exists.

"Your client doesn't live in the 13th District anymore, and the 13th District boundaries have changed substantially since he brought this lawsuit," St. Eve said.

Hall did not dispute those facts, but reminded St. Eve that the current 13th District is still primarily rural - meaning an independent candidate like Gill would have a significantly harder time gathering signatures than would an independent in the multiple, tightly packed districts that covered Chicago.

"There's... no denying the fact that there are rural districts in Illinois today and there will be in the future," Hall said, adding that Gill is not limited to only running in the 13th District.

"My client is permitted to run in any district in Illinois," Hall said.

Illinois Assistant Attorney General Frank Bieszczat, representing the state's election board, maintained St. Eve's line of argument. He suggested that rather than having this 6-year-old case remanded to the district court for a third time, Gill would be better served by relitigating his complaint using Illinois' updated congressional district map.

"There's nothing that prevents [Gill] or any other party from litigating a challenge as to those districts going forward... at that point, the district court will have evidence before it about the particular burdens that are presented by that district," Bieszczat said.

The panel, rounded out by Donald Trump-appointed U.S. Circuit Judges Michael Scudder and Michael Brennan, was far more sympathetic to Bieszczat's suggestion of fresh litigation. Scudder noted that the new 13th District contains a few urban centers, including the college town of Champagne-Urbana, that might change Gill's professed difficulty in gathering signatures from a rural area.

"The increased density of population in the southern tip of the new 13th District – that very well could materially change the analysis of the burden imposed by the collection of signatures," Scudder said.

Following Bieszczat's arguments, the panel took both attorneys' arguments under advisement but did not say when they would issue a ruling.

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