Voters in Rogers Park almost got to vote in the upcoming election on whether they want the U.S. to go to war against Iraq. Donna Conroy led a group of activists in an attempt to get the following referendum on the ballot in the 49th Ward: “Should the citizens of this ward oppose an invasion of Iraq by the United States?”

The Board of Election Commissioners turned them down. “I guess I learned again what I already knew–it’s very hard for a challenger, any challenger, to make the ballot,” says Conroy, a computer technician. “I thought no one would object, but I was wrong.”

Conroy and the other activists began talking seriously about the referendum last fall, as the Bush administration geared up for war. “I oppose the war effort,” says Conroy. “I think there’s an opportunity here to resolve this without violence. I think we’re really at the very beginning stages of resolving conflict through negotiation and building sustainable economies.” She says that almost all the people she knows also oppose the war, so she thought it would be a good idea to give voters an opportunity to voice their opinions and send an antiwar message to politicians.

After Thanksgiving she and the other activists began circulating petitions to get the question on the ballot. “We walked the precincts in Rogers Park,” she says. “The reaction? There was tremendous high support. Everyone wanted to sign. Everyone–and I mean people of all different ethnic and economic backgrounds–wanted an opportunity to have a say. The vast majority of people felt this war would create further insecurity and economic decline. A lot of people felt that the administration had gone mad. They felt it was time that we the voters started to take the reins.”

On December 9 Conroy turned in 756 signatures asking that the question be placed on the ballot. “I thought we’d move to the next phase of the campaign,” she says, “which is letting everyone know about the referendum.” Then in late December she got a notice from the election board telling her to appear at a hearing. According to the board’s letter, she hadn’t gathered enough signatures to make the ballot: the requirement was ten percent of the ward’s registered voters–1,900 or so signatures.

Conroy knew what the minimum was, but she couldn’t imagine that anyone would hold her to it. “We were fully aware of the process–we knew we had to get 10 percent of the registered voters in the ward,” she says. “But that’s a lot of signatures in a very short time, and we didn’t have a lot of people gathering them. Plus we also felt that as long as no one challenged us we would remain on the ballot.” The election board officials told her that the state had passed a law in 1995 saying that election boards have to examine every referendum request to see that it meets several basic requirements.

On January 7 Conroy went to the hearing with two activists who testified that they’d managed to get questions on the ballot even though they hadn’t had enough signatures. One activist explained that she got a question about jobs and public works on the citywide ballot even though she submitted only about 5,000 signatures, far short of the 140,000 required. The other activist testified that he got a housing referendum on the ballot even though it wasn’t clear he had the required number of signatures.

Board officials responded that those referenda went on ballots before the new law went into effect. “I know things used to be different,” says Tom Leach, a longtime spokesman for the board. “I can remember in the old days someone would come in with 100 signatures to something like, Should Com Edison cut their rates and give everyone a refund? We didn’t have a choice–it made the ballot so long as no voter challenged it. But the legislature passed a law that gives the election commission the right to challenge on its own volition. That doesn’t mean we go out and check the signatures. But we look at the petition to see how many signatures they needed and how many they filed. And if they didn’t file enough they can’t make the ballot.”

On January 28 Conroy was back for a second hearing. This time she brought a lawyer, Thomas Geoghegan. He contended that the board had exceeded its authority by tallying up the signatures on the petitions. “It’s true she does not have 10 percent of the registered voters in the ward,” he says. “But the board doesn’t have the authority to examine those signatures” unless the petition is challenged by a resident of the ward.

Citing a state appellate court ruling in North v. Hinkle, Geoghegan argued that the board had the authority to do only a very basic examination of petitions. “They’re supposed to conduct a ‘four-corner examination,’ meaning a basic examination of the face of the page of nominating papers,” he says. “But they went one step beyond that. They counted the signatures she gathered, then they determined from their own records how many registered voters there are in the ward to see if she had reached 10 percent.”

In effect, Geoghegan says, the board had stifled democracy by exceeding its powers. “I think these guys on the board are honorable guys–I was really impressed with the courtesy with which we were treated,” he says. “But I’m also saying you don’t give unbridled search-and-destroy-type powers to the board of election. We should have a robust, red-blooded democracy, and this board, in my humble opinion, has interpreted the law to make democracy as anemic as possible.”

Conroy asked the board to reverse itself. “I explained that elections were like a call and response between citizen and government,” she says. “This particular referendum would allow citizens to use the ballot box to discuss and decide the circumstances that shape their lives. I also reminded the board that in the last few elections a lot of people didn’t vote. Maybe one reason they don’t vote is because they see no relevance to the process. Well, here was a very relevant issue that everyone wants to talk about.”

The board was not moved. “Look, we don’t do an exhaustive examination of these petitions, but the signature requirement is one of the more obvious things,” says Leach. “We don’t do a check to see if any of the voters listed on the sheet actually signed the petition. We don’t look to see if they live where the petitioner says they live. We don’t do anything like that. We merely look to see if they have enough signatures. We’re following the procedure as outlined by the law.”

Conroy isn’t deterred by the board’s decision. She and her allies are determined to put together an alternative referendum in the 49th Ward. They intend to set up makeshift polling booths near the actual polling places and ask people to mark paper ballots on whether they support a war. “It will be frenetic, I know,” she says. “There are 44 precincts in the 49th Ward. We’ll have a box in every precinct. On election day we’ll have 50 people or so to stand outside the box and hand out the ballots and let people vote. Then we’ll count the vote. We’ll count right there on the street or in a car to keep warm or in somebody’s house. Then we’ll enter the results into a database on the Web.”

She promises to do an honest count, resisting any temptation to discard ballots that support war. “If we lose, we lose,” she says. “But this is about people being decision makers. I trust the people. I believe the people are smart. The question is giving them the opportunity to show it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Fogelman.