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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 02:09 pm

Open the ballot to third-party candidates

The very foundation of American democracy is the right of citizens to circulate petitions to appear on the ballot as candidates for public office. But just getting on the ballot as a candidate is a high hurdle, particularly if one seeks to run as a third-party candidate in Illinois.     

The problem is that the two political parties collaborated in passing legislation that slants the playing field to shut out third-party candidates from getting on the ballot.

Last week, two third-party Senate candidates, Bob Gray and Michael Oberline, were removed from the ballot by the State Board of Elections. Their nominating petitions had been challenged by high-paid attorneys who were well-funded by the Republican Party.

One of the candidates, Bob Gray, a lifelong Republican, circulated petitions to run as an Independent Party candidate in the new 50th District against incumbent State Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville. Gray’s third-party candidacy would have appealed to Sangamon County Republicans who chafe at the idea of losing representation in the 50th District, the seat now held by Larry Bomke, who will be retiring at the end of his term.

Michael Oberline of Virden sought to challenge Democrat Andy Manar of Bunker Hill and Republican Mike McElroy of Decatur in the new 48th District Senate seat as a candidate of the Constitution Party.

I was a declared candidate last year for the 48th District Senate seat. So I know the time it takes to circulate petitions. Running as a Democrat, state law required that I obtain 1,000 signatures from registered voters of my political party who reside in the district.  Without party support, an independent candidate running for a party nomination in a primary election can accomplish this task by collecting signatures door-to-door on their own or through a small group of friends and family.  

But state law sets a higher hurdle for third-party candidates like Gray and Oberline. They were required to gather three times the number of signatures – 3,000.  This requires organization, which most third-party candidates lack, or time, which they also lack. They had several hundred more signatures than were required, but by the time lawyers pored over their petitions, and cross-checked the voting rolls, they fell a few signatures short.

A Democracy is about the competition of ideas, but the law in Illinois requiring third-party candidates to collect three times as many signatures unfairly tilts the playing field by making it more difficult for third-party candidates to get on the ballot and speak as candidates.

Illinois has become dominated by one-party rule. In this election, there are 66 House races and 26 Senate races where there is only one candidate running, with no competition.

We should lower the bar for third-party candidates to the same level as Democrats and Republicans. There should be equal treatment among all candidates for public office.  

Earlier this year, Andy Manar pledged that he would sponsor such a bill if he is elected to the Senate. Under Manar’s proposal, third-party candidates would only have needed 1,000 valid signatures.  This is one of the reasons I support his candidacy.

Andy Manar’s Republican opponent, Mike McElroy, turned in 1,524 total signatures, far fewer than half of what Oberline turned in. Only 63 of those signatures were from Sangamon County, a key county in this district. Yet he’s on the ballot, and Oberline is on the outside looking in.

If Oberline had the resources to hire lawyers to challenge his opponents’ petitions, I doubt McElroy would have survived a challenge. Many of McElroy’s signatures came from Shelby and Bond counties, which are outside of the district.

We need to engage more people in the process and send the message that we want competition and we want voters to have real choice in our elections. Without it, we’ll never get the kind of government we all deserve.

Bill Clutter was elected to the Springfield city council in 1987, where he served as the first Ward One alderman. In 1990, he challenged 18-year incumbent Republican state Sen. John “Doc” Davidson as a Democrat and nearly unseated Davidson.  He announced his candidacy for the Senate in the new 48th District, but bowed out to allow Andy Manar to run unopposed in the Democratic primary.
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