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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Seventh Circuit tosses challenge to Illinois ballot rules

The case was brought by a former congressional candidate who claimed the state has effectively barred independents from challenging the Republican-Democrat duopoly.

CHICAGO (CN) — The Seventh Circuit dismissed a would-be congressman's challenge to Illinois election rules on Wednesday afternoon, finding that the state's 2021 redistricting process had rendered the case moot.

The case began with a central Illinois resident named David Gill, who argued that Illinois election law imposes an unconstitutionally high entry bar for those outside the Republican-Democrat duopoly. Gill attempted a run to represent Illinois' former 13th Congressional District in 2016 as an independent, but he 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. In 2016 this translated to about 10,750 signatures, which couldn't be collected more than 90 days before the last date for filing a candidate petition.

Gill believed he had met that requirement by the time he filed his candidate petition in June 2016, but a petition challenge later that month led to an inspection by the State Officers Electoral Board that dashed his congressional aspirations. The board concluded that only about 8,500 of the 11,350 signatures his team had collected were valid.

Gill and his supporters filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Board of Elections in 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 compared to the 5% of district voter signatures which independents were required to collect, Democratic and Republican candidates only needed the signatures of 0.5% of primary voters in their district.

The case floundered in the Central District of Illinois twice. First in 2018, when the Barack Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce found for the Illinois Board of Elections. Though Gill successfully appealed the case before the Seventh Circuit in 2020, U.S. District Judge Sara Darrow, another Obama appointee, also ruled against him in March 2022.

The latest dismissal from the Chicago-based federal appeals court comes four months after an appellate panel consisting of all Donald Trump appointees – U.S. Circuit Judges Michael Brennan, Michael Scudder and Amy St. Eve – heard oral arguments on the case in December. It does not substantively address Darrow's ruling, but instead hinges on a simple fact: The 13th District which Gill wanted to represent no longer exists.

"While this litigation was pending, Illinois adopted a redistricting plan that changed the boundaries of the 13th District," Brennan wrote for the panel. "Because that district’s geographic features have changed, this court can no longer offer Gill any effectual relief."

Illinois' 2021 redistricting process was a contentious one. Per the 2020 census, the state had lost over 18,000 people since 2010, forcing it to give up one of its 18 prior congressional seats. It was former GOP Congressman Adam Kinzinger who ended up on the chopping block, with his 16th District eliminated and rolled into the new 14th, 16th and 17th Districts. Republicans and at least one independent watchdog group accused state Democrats of gerrymandering the district lines to entrench Democratic power in the wake of Kinzinger announcing that he would not run for reelection in 2022.

The new 13th District, currently represented by Democrat Nikki Budzinski, is undoubtedly more blue than its prior incarnation which Gill wanted to represent. It excludes territory in the old 13th which was dominated by white rural conservatives, while connecting a string of central Illinois cities with large Black populations, including the capital of Springfield. Gill, a resident of Bloomington, would no longer be able to represent the new 13th as an independent or otherwise. He now lives in the new 17th District, represented by Democrat Eric Sorensen.

And whether in the 13th or 17th, his constitutional challenge seems destined for the same chopping block as Kinzinger.

"Changes to the 13th Congressional District because of redistricting have moved this case outside of the capable of repetition yet evading review exception to the mootness doctrine. This case is thus moot and not justiciable," Brennan wrote.

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Categories / Appeals, Government, Law, Politics, Regional

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