I’m never really surprised when the board of elections bounces a rookie candidate off the ballot. In fact, I work on the assumption that the board will always favor the well connected over the neophyte in these matters. It’s sort of like taking out a champion in boxing. If the rookie wants a win, it better be a knockout.

That being said, it was Christmas comes early for state rep John Fritchey last week, when hearing officer Lynne Ostfeld booted Roger Romanelli, his wannabe opponent in the 32nd Ward Democratic committeeman’s race. Her ruling was a stretch even by election board standards.

On November 16 Fritchey challenged Romanelli’s petitions in part on the grounds that they contained “the names of persons who did not sign the papers in their own proper persons.” “Such signatures,” his challenge urged, “are not genuine and are forgeries.”

After Fritchey filed, the case moved to what they call a record review. That’s the mind-numbing process where representatives from both sides sit around a computer screen while a clerk from the board of elections compares signatures on the nominating petitions to the signatures on voter registration cards. If the clerk thinks the signatures don’t match, or if the address isn’t in the ward, she recommends that they be stricken.

Romanelli submitted 710 signatures. At the records review, 483 signature were ruled invalid, leaving Romanelli with 227 valid signatures, 20 below the 247 he needed to make the ballot.

So Romanelli retraced his steps. Accompanied by notary publics, he and his aides went back to the homes of voters, asking them to sign sworn affidavits affirming they had indeed signed his original petitions or that they lived in the 32nd Ward. All told, he gathered 49.

“I could have got more, but I didn’t think I needed more,” says Romanelli. “I didn’t think they were going to rule against 49 personally sworn affidavits.”

Almost. On December 13 Ostfeld issued a ruling dismissing 45 of the statements. According to Ostfeld, it’s not enough that voters signed notarized affidavits swearing that they signed the original petitions. They also have to explain why the signature on the petition looks different from their signatures on the voter registration card.

As more than one lawyer has explained to me, it doesn’t matter why the signatures are different so long as the voter swears that he signed the original nominating petitions. “A sworn, notarized affidavit is what we call prima facie evidence,” says one election-law attorney, who’d rather not be named because he has friends on both sides of the debate. “It’s evidence that’s established as a fact unless it’s rebutted. But the hearing officer isn’t rebutting the evidence. She’s changing the issue.”

Ostfeld also removed seven voters who’d signed affidavits attesting to the addresses at which they were registered. In this case her finding was that Romanelli “presents nothing to show” that the voters were “registered there on or before” the day in November when they signed his nominating petitions. Well, I suppose it’s possible that all seven of these voters moved between signing the petition in November and signing the affidavit one month later. But is there any reason to doubt them on their word?

On Sunday Romanelli held a press conference to announce that he would appeal Ostfeld’s ruling to the Cook County circuit court. On hand were four residents whose affidavits Ostfeld had dismissed. They showed me their driver’s licenses to prove that they lived at their addresses and all but raised their right hands and swore to God that they were telling the truth. “They accused us of fraud, and the only way to debunk that is to sign an affidavit. So I signed,” said Craig Gould, a 32nd Ward resident. “And now they say my affidavit’s not good enough? I shouldn’t have to prove I’m me. If they don’t believe I’m me, they should have to prove it’s not me.”

For his part, Fritchey says he thinks the hearing officer made the right ruling. But he can understand why Romanelli and his supporters would be disappointed. “If people feel these rules should be changed, I’d be happy to sit down when them,” he says.

By the way, Fritchey was represented by Michael Kasper, go-to guy for house speaker Michael Madigan and many others. Kasper’s made a name for himself convincing the board to bounce independent Democrats and third-party candidates from the ballot. Fritchey says that his statehouse alliance with Madigan has nothing to do with him hiring Kasper or with Kasper taking his case — they’re old friends from law school. 

Fair enough. But if the board’s going to keep on making rulings like this one, I suggest we do away with the time, money, and inconvenience of elections altogether. Let’s just give the oath of office to any candidate Kasper represents.