Governor Blagojevich doesn’t get to appoint a successor for Rahm Emanual in Congress, so he’s set a special election to let the voters in the Fifth District decide who goes to Washington. It’s going to cost about $2 million to cover the March primary and another $2 million for the April 7 general election, even though it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the winner of the Democratic primary will take the cake.

So far 11 Democrats have filed to run. A few others have said they’re going to. But I wouldn’t get too close to any of them because there’s a good chance that some won’t make the cut. To get on the ballot, according to state law, each candidate must file nominating petitions signed by dozens of voters in the district, the number based on how many people there cast ballots for their party in the last election. The exact formula is really complicated—even experts I spoke with aren’t up on all of the rules—but officials have determined that for this election Democratic candidates need 927 signatures, Republicans 319, and Greens 30. Then the nominating petitions have to be filed by January 19. On January 20, any voter can challenge their validity—and with that we enter the Twilight Zone of Illinois election law.

As near as I can tell, having studied this stuff for years, our system is designed to be as confusing as possible in order to ensure that anyone who runs, much less wins, is either backed by the Democratic machine or loaded with cash. There are a host of rules and regulations that govern the signature-gathering process: voters have to sign, not print, their names; their signatures must reasonably resemble the ones on their voter registration cards; they have to live where they say they live; husbands and wives can’t sign for each other; and so on.

I can almost guarantee that someone will challenge someone else’s petitions. In particular, look for lawyers for state rep Sara Feigenholtz to scrutinize the nominating petitions of Jan Donatelli, an airline pilot who at the moment is the only other woman in the race. As Anita Alvarez demonstrated in last year’s crowded primary for Cook County state’s attorney, it can be a major advantage to be the only woman on the ballot. As a rookie, Donatelli’s probably having enough trouble just gathering her own nominating signatures, but Feigenholtz is a savvy vet of the General Assembly with close ties to house speaker Michael Madigan, a master at bouncing nettlesome independents and third-party types off the ballot. As we’re always reminded in Chicago: politics ain’t beanbag.

This election is on such a compressed schedule that city, county, and state election officials are still hashing out all the rules that will govern it, including the timetable of the challenge process. Rest assured that however they work things out, the leading beneficiaries will be the cadre of election-law lawyers. In 2008, state rep John Fritchey brought in the big gun in election law—Michael Kasper—to blast a rookie opponent, Roger Romanelli, off the ballot in the race for 32nd Ward Democratic committeeman. Fritchey charged that almost all of Romanelli’s nominating signatures were fraudulent. This forced Romanelli and his backers to retrace their steps and go door-to-door gathering affidavits from all the signers testifying that, yes, they were who they said they were. And after all that, a Cook County hearing officer still tossed Romanelli off the ballot, saying the voters also needed to explain why the signatures on their petitions looked different from the ones on their voter registration cards.

For what it’s worth, Fritchey is a candidate in the Fifth District race. I suppose it would be poetic justice if Romanelli, who’s not running, challenged Fritchey’s nominating petitions just to make Fritchey’s life as miserable as Fritchey made his.

After all these preliminary high jinks, we’ll have the actual campaign, where a big advantage goes to the candidates who send out the most flyers. (Printers are another group that makes out big in this system.) “Flyers are the most efficient way to reach voters in these kinds of races,” says Mike Foucher, a political consultant who’s run several races in the area. And of course money helps. “It costs between 35 and 40 cents apiece for a mailing. And you’ve got to hit a voter a minimum of three times. That means you have to spend $1.20 for each voter. It adds up.”

As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t believe a word you read in election flyers. When they’re not exaggerating candidates’ skills or distorting opponents’ deficiencies, they’re raising issues that have nothing to do with the election. In last year’s primary for Cook County Board of Review, Joe Berrios sent voters mailer after mailer extolling his support for public education and environmental conservation, even though the office he was seeking oversees property tax appeals. Berrios took that one.

And flyers can always go negative: look for everyone to try to link everyone else to Cook County Board president Todd Stroger, since voters in this majority white northwest-side district have determined that Stroger, as opposed to, oh, Mayor Daley or Madigan, is the root of all that’s wrong with local politics. These voters will tell you that race has nothing to do with their position.

Those who don’t use the Stroger approach will probably try to link opponents to Blagojevich, even though most, if not all, voted for him back in 2006. And they’ll all be highlighting their ties to Obama, who probably didn’t know he had so many friends on the northwest side.

At some point we’ll actually get to Election Day. In the not-so-old days, city and county payrollers would stand on corners pressing palm cards into the hands of passing voters. As a longtime resident of the Fifth District, I can recall when these goons were campaigning for Blagojevich and, before him, Dan Rostenkowski. In 2002, the last time there was a vacancy, machine apparatchik Donald Tomczak brought in his patronage army to work for Emanuel, who ran, and won, as a good-government candidate.

This glorious Election Day tradition may have passed, what with Tomczak sent to jail on corruption charges and his great political army dismantled. So whom should you vote for? Personally, I’m searching for any candidate with a political backbone, which I guess rules out most current officeholders as well as any candidate related by marriage, birth, or favors to another officeholder.

So far the Democratic field looks promising. We’ve got a labor lawyer/writer (Tom Geoghegan), a union activist (Donatelli), a self-proclaimed peace activist (Matt Reichel), an economist (Charlie Wheelan), and a doctor (Alexander Victor Forys). There’s also the son of an alderman, but in this case it’s Justin Oberman, whose father, Marty Oberman, may have been the last member of the council with guts.

If you don’t like who wins the Democratic primary, you can always vote for the winner of the Republican or Green primaries—provided the Democrats haven’t shanghaied those parties with stalking horse candidates. By the way, the next campaign will begin almost as soon as this special one ends—the next primary is in February 2010.v

Ben Joravsky discusses his columns weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at And for even more Joravsky, see our blog Clout City.