The Illinois State Board of Elections once had an outpost on the 14th floor of the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop. Objectors file their petitions to knock candidates off the ballot at the counter on the right. Credit: Maya Dukmasova for Chicago Reader

Election season in Illinois brings the usual accusations of corruption, copious paperwork, and byzantine bureaucratic processes to get on the ballot. Here’s how a seemingly simple, constitutionally sound, taxpayer-dollar-conscious, efficiency-oriented state law can seed doubts about election integrity.

As you might not recall, to get on the primary ballot, candidates have to file a certain number of signatures on a petition nominating them for office. Chicago mayoral candidates, for example, must have 12,500 valid signatures; major party U.S. Senate candidates in Illinois need 5,000; candidates for state senate seats need only 1,000. For each signature to count, the people signing candidates’ petitions have to be real people—voters registered at the address they indicate on the petition. That address has to be in the district or jurisdiction that the candidate is running to represent. And, when it comes to city offices (mayor, clerk, treasurer, or alderman), the signer also can’t have signed for any other candidate in that race.

After candidates file, their opponents will often challenge the validity of their signatures (the signature isn’t from a registered voter, the voter doesn’t live in the district, etc.). The Illinois State Board of Elections set the deadline for objections for the March 17 primary ballot at 5 PM on December 9.

Now pay close attention: per state law, those wishing to challenge a candidate’s petition signatures have to file an original and two copies of a packet containing a narrative summary of their objections and a set of “appendix recapitulation” sheets. These sheets mirror the candidate’s original petition pages, only instead of having lines for signatures and signatories’ addresses, the appendix recapitulation sheets have lines on which the objector marks the reason for her objection. Say John Smith signed on the first line of page 15 of the candidate’s petition, and the objector has found that John Smith doesn’t live in the district in which the candidate is running. On the first line of page 15 of their appendix recapitulation sheet, the objector would check off “signer not in district” as the reason for challenging the signature.

Once petition challenges are received, the State Board of Elections keeps one copy of the objection on file at the Thompson Center (a place whose glassy postmodern architecture deliciously reflects the spirit of the winding, tubular state election bureaucracy), and transmits the original and the other copy to the designated local election board that will examine the validity of the objections. (As we know, objections are just as likely to be bogus as the original signatures and therefore receive administrative hearings in which candidates and objectors have a chance to argue about their validity.) The state board itself only examines objections to candidates for statewide office (like governor or secretary of state) and for offices whose districts cross county lines. County election officials hear cases related to districts within their counties. Objections to candidates running to represent constituencies that are fully within the city of Chicago, or that overlap city boundaries, are sent to the Chicago Board of Elections for review.

The designated election board then notifies the candidates being challenged. Usually they send the paperwork via the county sheriff, or through certified mail, and sometimes—like the Chicago Board of Elections does—both. So, within days of the objection being filed, the candidates receive at least one of the copies of the objection packet first filed at the state board of elections. They then have a few days to prepare to fight the objector’s challenges. Campaign staff usually spend those days feverishly combing the appendix recapitulation sheets for any apparent errors, and double-checking the validity of the signatures they’ve collected.

Wondering why you should care? Besides this being how your democracy works, one campaign’s experience also shows how this process can generate deep skepticism about electoral integrity. On November 25, 2019, Froylan “Froy” Jimenez, a first-time candidate running for state senate in the First District against incumbent Antonio Munoz, filed a petition to get on the Democratic primary ballot with 2,265 signatures. On December 10, the day after objections were due, Jimenez contacted the state board of elections to ask to see the objection that was filed against him, according to his attorney Adolfo Mondragon. Candidates can waive service from the sheriff/certified mail and see the objections faster if they provide the state board with a notarized affidavit. Jimenez faxed the waiver the next afternoon and received an e-mail with a scanned attachment of the objection a few minutes later. The campaign volunteers immediately set about checking the appendix recapitulation sheets against their signatures and voter records.

Jimenez didn’t waive service in time to stop it, though. The state board had already given the Chicago Board of Elections the original and one copy of the objection on the 10th. That same day the copy was stuffed in a certified mail envelope and sent to Jimenez, and a copy of the original was made for the Cook County Sheriff’s office to deliver.

On December 12, Jimenez received notice that the certified letter was ready to pick up at the post office and a sheriff’s deputy also stopped by to deliver the objection. Once the campaign examined both deliveries, they saw an alarming discrepancy: The copy delivered by certified mail (one of the two copies originally dropped off by the objector) matched the PDF e-mailed by the state board, which was a scan of the copy they kept in their file. The packet delivered by the sheriff, however, had 30 more objections. The next week, when Jimenez’s campaign showed up to the Chicago Board of Election to argue about the signatures, they saw that the board was also using the version of the packet that had more objections.

It all came down to the original objection not matching its two “copies.”

Officials from both the Illinois State Board of Elections and the Chicago Board of Elections told me that this isn’t so strange. In the rush to build objections that are often hundreds of pages long, and photocopy all pages, it’s not unheard of that the “copies” of the packets have missing pages or pages that are out of order. The discrepancies in the objections filed against Jimenez, though, weren’t just a matter of blank or upside-down pages showing up in copied packets. There were appendix recapitulation sheets that were numbered in the original packet but not in the “copies,” and, more importantly, there were appendix recapitulation sheets that listed more objections in the original than its “copies.”

Jimenez’s campaign immediately suspected malfeasance at the state board to explain the discrepancy. Mondragon theorized the following narrative: maybe a representative for the objector—an Illinois Department Of Human Services employee named Elizabeth Diaz-Castillo, who has appeared as an objector to Munoz’s challengers in the past—delivered the original objection to the state board at the eleventh hour but realized that there weren’t enough signature challenges. What if Diaz-Castillo asked a friendly clerk at the board to time-stamp the top sheet of their objection (which was filed 35 minutes before the deadline) but allow them to come back the next day to actually drop off a packet and copies with more challenges? Mondragon wondered whether an earlier version of the packet with fewer objections got mixed in with the final filed objection and its copies. This sort of corrupt dealing between a campaign worker and a state employee wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility in this town.

“I would note that State Board of Elections employees sign a nonpartisan political activity waiver,” said Bernadette Matthews, assistant executive director of the State Board of Elections, after patiently listening to my presentation of this theory. “I’m not gonna comment on the likelihood [of Mondragon’s theory] but I’ll just say we receive what was filed. We receive the original and the two copies at the same time. When an original is received and time-stamped it’s along with the two copies that are then hand-stamped.”

People could say Matthews’s denial of an allegation of misconduct among her staff is expected. But there’s a simpler explanation for the objection discrepancies. (One that doesn’t beg the question of how Diaz-Castillo’s representative managed to strike a shady deal with a board of elections employee, in front of other employees working the counter and many people waiting to file challenges to other candidates.) The objector’s team could have made an objection packet and produced the needed copies, but then realized they didn’t mark enough signature challenges to really be safe and decided to beef it up. The final objection was prepared, but the copies filed with it clearly belonged to an earlier, or incomplete, version. Given the mad rush to file on December 9, it’s possible that whoever dropped off the three packets to the state board either didn’t notice that the “copies” didn’t match the original or knew they didn’t have the right copies and still filed them anyway. The next morning a staffer from the Chicago Board of Elections picked up the original and one of the mismatched copies while the other copy was scanned and stored by the state board, and this is how the divergent sets of objections entered the pipeline to reach Jimenez. Neither the state board nor the Chicago Board of Elections have the time nor resources to examine objection copies to make sure they match the original objection. Unless a candidate brings these issues up at a hearing, they fall by the wayside.

Asked about the discrepancies between the three packets, Diaz-Castillo’s attorney, Thomas Jaconetty, responded with an e-mailed statement, saying that the original objection now on file with the Chicago Board of Elections “is, in fact, identical in all respects, details, and particulars” to the objection he has in his own file. He didn’t offer any explanation for why the three packets filed with the state board didn’t match one another. But another election attorney, Michael Dorf, said this type of paperwork screwup within an objector’s camp is very common. He vociferously defended the integrity of the State Board of Elections staff, too. “They’re good people and they are not partisan,” Dorf said. “It’s very unlikely that someone is involved in a conspiracy. I respect those people a great deal.”

Mondragon prepared a motion to bring up the discrepancy in the copies to the Chicago Board of Elections, but that became moot. Ultimately there weren’t enough valid objections even in Diaz-Castillo’s beefiest objection to knock Jimenez off the ballot. Still, Mondragon was perplexed by the discrepancy. “I hope it’s benign, but if it’s not it means there are people [working for the State Board of Elections ] who are willing to look the other way to cheat,” he said. “It’s already a system that gives the upper hand to people who are incumbents and have resources.” Presented with the details of the benign scenario, Mondragon said the fact that this could happen at all “adds questions about the integrity of the system—whether it’s a quality control issue or a malfeasance issue.”

The state law that requires objectors to file an original and two copies was written in 1998. Mondragon wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to require objectors to file just one packet and have state officials make copies themselves, and bill the cost of copying back to the objector. But that would bring up a whole separate problem, according to election lawyer Andrew Finko. “There are constitutional restrictions on imposing costs in First Amendment situations,” he said. “Ballot access is all First Amendment. The legal fiction is that an objector is a voter who wants to assert their rights to challenge a nomination.” Even though the objector has to pay the cost of copying the objections anyway, “implementing legislation that shifts the cost would be difficult. It’s easier to have the objector handle [the copying] because that’s not direct money that they’re paying to the state.”

The bottom line, Finko added, agreeing with the spirit of Mondragon’s complaint, is that state election code is full of rules that help incumbents and hinder challengers. These rules are written by incumbents, after all. “The election code isn’t about access,” he said. “It’s about denial. There’s 101 ways to get you off the ballot. It’s an obstacle course. If you don’t know the process you’ll get sandbagged.” v

This story has been updated to correctly describe the election rule prohibiting voters from signing petitions for multiple candidates in the same race.