In May the General Assembly quietly approved a bill that cut in half the number of petition signatures a Chicago mayoral candidate needs to make the ballot, from 25,000 to 12,500. The backers of the bill, which Governor Blagojevich is expected to sign, say it makes the city’s election law fairer, but local independents aren’t rejoicing. “If they say it’s reform don’t believe them,” says Jay Stone, a political activist whose father is 50th Ward alderman Bernard Stone. “The election laws are there to help incumbents stay in power.”

In 1995 mayoral candidates needed only around 3,000 signatures–the exact number fluctuated because it was based on a percentage of the people who’d voted in the previous election. That year the General Assembly adopted a law that eliminated mayoral primaries in Chicago and made the election nonpartisan–all candidates had to run without party labels. If no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote, there’d be a runoff between the top two candidates. But state legislators didn’t specify how many nominating signatures mayoral candidates needed to get on the ballot, and the issue wound up before the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the three-person body that oversees local elections. The commissioners eventually decided that running in a citywide campaign was roughly the same as running as an independent in a statewide election, which requires around 25,000 nominating signatures. That’s the number they recommended to state legislators, who made it law in 1998.

Independents immediately attacked the legislation. Requiring 25,000 signatures “really isn’t very logical at all,” says Frank Avila, a lawyer and independent political activist. “There are many more people in Illinois than in Chicago.” And many more in New York City, where a mayoral candidate needs only 7,000 signatures.

In 2002 Avila sued the Board of Election Commissioners on behalf of four relatively unknown mayoral candidates, though he admits none of them had a chance of defeating Daley. “I didn’t do it as an anti-Daley suit,” he says. “I did it as a prodemocracy suit.”

The suit charged that the 25,000-signature requirement was so difficult to meet it effectively denied candidates access to the ballot. All four plaintiffs made the 2003 ballot, but only because Daley didn’t challenge any of their petition signatures. He probably could have knocked all of them off the ballot if he had–Avila readily concedes that none of them had 25,000 signatures, much less 25,000 legitimate ones. No one counts the signatures unless someone challenges them, and Daley didn’t challenge them because he didn’t need to.

Avila dropped the case before a judge decided it, in part because none of his clients had enough money to pay him to pursue it. “The conventional opinion was that Daley was unbeatable,” he says. None of the four even came close.

Now Daley’s administration is mired in scandals, and the city’s schools, parks, and public transportation system are broke. Two well-known politicians, congressmen Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr., are openly criticizing the administration and dropping hints that they might run against Daley in 2007. At the moment he looks a little vulnerable, so why would the General Assembly, whose leaders are Daley allies, change the election law to benefit mayoral challengers? Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, says the new law has nothing to do with the ins and outs of mayoral politics. “It’s an effort to bring consistency to signature requirements for candidates up and down the ballot,” he says.

None of the politicos I talked to, independents as well as party loyalists, believes this. They point out that the new requirement isn’t even consistent with the requirement for independents or third-party candidates running for statewide office. Rich Means, a political activist and election-law expert, says the requirement for statewide candidates is “based on a percentage of the votes in the last election. It’s one percent of the number of people who voted in the last statewide election or 25,000 signatures–whichever is lower.”

If the new law were consistent with that, mayoral candidates would have to gather only around 4,800 signatures on their nominating petitions for the 2007 election, since 483,993 ballots were cast in the last one. Means also points out that a Republican or Democrat running for statewide office needs only 5,000 signatures to make the ballot. “Mayor Daley needs more signatures to get on the ballot to run for reelection than Governor Blagojevich needs,” he says. “You figure this out.”

Most observers assume the 25,000 requirement was cut to benefit Daley. “Let’s be realistic, if they [Daley and Madigan] didn’t want it to happen it wouldn’t have happened,” says one election-law expert who works for the Democratic Party. “So certainly they were for it. I’m not sure why.”

Means thinks Madigan and Daley realized the law had to be changed if they wanted to fend off another suit like Avila’s. Jay Stone agrees. “They want to keep the number of signatures as high as they can to keep people from running, but they don’t want to keep it so high that it won’t survive a court challenge,” he says. “It’s a classic machine move. It’s not reform. It’s protection–incumbent protection.”

As Stone points out, it won’t be easy for challengers to collect even 12,500 good nominating signatures. For one thing, candidates aren’t allowed to start collecting until 90 days before the filing date. For another, Chicago’s election code is a thicket of rules and regulations. “Some rules are obvious, others are not,” says Mat Delort, another election-law expert. “Names have to be signed–you can’t print them. You have to actually live where you’re registered to vote. You can’t sign nominating petitions for more than one candidate in a race.” And because voters can sign only one petition, candidates with big organizations–usually incumbents–have a big advantage.

Delort figures that independent candidates often need three times the required number of signatures to survive a challenge. “There are a couple of rules of thumb,” he says. “If you have your people circulate door-to-door with poll sheets in their hands in a stable neighborhood–meaning residents have lived there a long time–then you need one-and-one-half times the number of required signatures. But if you’re circulating at the Jewel on the north lakefront in a transient neighborhood you need maybe three times that number. I’ve seen politicians with two to three times the number filed get knocked off the ballot.”

The election-law experts I talked to assume Daley will have his experts carefully scan the nominating petitions of anyone who dares run against him. “It’s the first line of attack,” says Means. “You have to expect it.”

Of course Daley’s opponents can challenge his petitions just as easily, but most observers say that’s a hopeless cause. “You can’t knock Daley off–they know what they’re doing,” says Stone. “Each precinct captain goes door-to-door and collects signatures and reports to the district leader, who reports to a ward secretary. They check those signatures against the polling sheet. Each page has to be notarized. They don’t even have the same notaries notarize every page–God forbid there’s some problem with one particular notary.”

Means is less concerned about the new law than other observers. “I know that 25,000–and probably 12,500–signatures are way out of line, but I have to say these requirements give you a goal,” he says. “They help you figure out which precinct workers are real and which ones are blowing smoke. It tunes up your campaign–shows the world that you’re for real. We have to admit, if you can’t raise 12,500 good signatures you can’t possibly win the election.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.