Cynthia Soto has served two terms as the Democratic state representative in the Fourth Legislative District, which covers the Humboldt Park area. She’s running for reelection with several thousand dollars in her campaign chest and the support of all the area committeemen, who’ll be dispatching dozens of precinct captains on her behalf come election day. Kathy Cummings, a Green Party candidate, is a retired CPS teacher running in her first race, with no campaign money to speak of and little more than a handful of volunteers. Soto would have been likely to clobber Cummings in the November 7 election under any circumstances. Even so, house speaker Michael Madigan unleashed his ace election-law specialist to knock Cummings off the ballot.

The case, now entering its third month, demonstrates the lengths to which Madigan will go to guarantee that the Greens–or for that matter, any third party–never take root in a Democratic district in his state. “I guess you can call it a compliment,” says Walter Esler, Cummings’s campaign manager. “Madigan brought in his big guns to get us.”

Democrats and Republicans already hold a big advantage over third-party candidates, thanks to quirks in the state’s election laws, which are of course drafted by Democrats and Republicans. According to the law, regular party candidates for state rep only need 500 valid signatures to make the ballot. Third-party candidates, on the other hand, need to gather 5 percent of the turnout in the last election. Unfortunately, the law is so clumsily written it isn’t exactly clear what that means. The Democrats, backed by the election board, say Cummings needs 1,531 signatures–5 percent of her district’s ballots in the 2004 presidential election. Cummings argues that she only needs 1,119 signatures, 5 percent of all district ballots cast in the 2004 state representative race.

Just to be on the safe side, Cummings submitted 3,494 signatures to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners on June 26. The Democrats quickly counterattacked: on July 3 Guadalupe Miranda, Soto’s secretary, challenged the veracity of 2,440 signatures on Cummings’s nominating petitions. To help push the case, Michael Kasper, the state Democratic Party’s election-law wizard, was brought in.

For the first round of the challenge–the so-called binder check–Kasper, Cummings, and a hearing officer sat in a warehouselike room in a downtown county building for about a week, reviewing hundreds of nominating petitions. According to Kasper, the majority of the signatures on Cummings’s petitions failed to match the signatures on the voter registration cards. He convinced the hearing officer to knock just shy of 2,000 signatures from her petitions and remove Cummings from the ballot.

Cummings went back to the street to gather affidavits from voters certifying that they had indeed signed their names. “We retraced our steps, going door to door, only this time with a notary,” she says. “We told people that their signatures had been challenged–would they sign an affidavit? It was exhausting. This was during the heat wave, and we worked through the extreme heat.”

Some people were resistant, Cummings says. “People were frightened, people were angry. One guy went off on us when we asked about his wife’s signature–‘My wife doesn’t know you. We’re getting calls from the other side. Get out of here!'”

Next Cummings lodged an appeal, which came before Terence Flynn, a Chicago Board of Election Commission hearing officer who happens to be the brother of state rep Barbara Flynn Currie, a longtime Madigan ally. By then Cummings had hired a lawyer herself, Andrew Spiegel, general counsel for the state’s Libertarian Party. For over a week Spiegel and Kramer went at it, going over dozens of signatures and debating further nuances of election law. When the dust settled on August 2, Flynn again kicked Cummings off the ballot, declaring she had only 1,518 valid signatures, 13 fewer than needed.

Cummings immediately appealed to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, a three-person board appointed by the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, which upheld Flynn’s ruling. Cummings next appealed to the Cook County Circuit Court. But on September 1, circuit court judge Marcia Hayes dismissed her appeal on the grounds that Spiegel had missed a deadline for serving documents in the case. (Spiegel argues that he did not in fact miss the deadline and has asked for an opportunity to argue that point.) Thus after months of litigation and petition gathering, Cummings’s fate comes down to a technicality. “Welcome to democracy in the state of Illinois,” Spiegel says. “The Democratic Party is trying to make sure the people of the Fourth District have only one candidate.”

Kasper shrugs. “She’s gone from the ballot,” he says. “She appealed, the appeal was dismissed. There’s really not much more to say.”

“People need to play by the rules,” says Steve Brown, Madigan’s chief spokesman. “It’s sort of a basic first step. If you want to get elected and make the rules, you ought to follow the election rules and regulations yourself.”

Esler maintains that the Democrats’ heavy-handed tactics may work against them in the long run, fueling the disillusionment of activists while contributing to the general apathy among the rank and file that keeps voter registration and turnout down. “They do their best to break the spirit of anyone who dares to run against them, and then they wonder why people don’t come out to vote in national elections,” says Esler. “No wonder they can’t win.”

But according to party insiders, Madigan has several compelling reasons to challenge third-party petitions. It deters challengers, who might think twice before subjecting themselves to the process. It also binds Soto–who began her political career as an independent rallying against the machine–to Madigan. (Soto did not respond to calls for comment.) Finally, knocking Cummings from the ballot has ramifications for future elections in the district. According to state election law, a third-party candidate who pulls 5 percent of the vote makes the party “legitimately sanctioned,” which means that in subsequent elections that party’s candidate only needs 500 signatures to make the ballot–just like the Democrats and Republicans. Knocking off an opponent with a preemptive strike prevents this leveling of the playing field.

“There’s always a reason for what the machine does,” says Esler, who says he learned his political lessons as a precinct worker for former Cook County clerk John Marcin’s 35th Ward Democratic organization. “You have to think like them if you want to run against them.”

Meanwhile, there’s a chance the move against Cummings may wind up damaging Governor Blagojevich. Kasper had been working with Blagojevich’s lawyers to keep the statewide Green Party off the ballot when Madigan dispatched him to help Soto. To almost everyone’s surprise, the Greens won the statewide case: in August the party was certified to field a full slate in November’s gubernatorial election. Should the Greens cost Blagojevich the race against Judy Baar Topinka, the Republicans will have Madigan to thank. “Madigan put in the second-string lawyers for the state case, and he put in the first string, Kasper, against Kathy,” says Esler with a wry smile. “We drew fire away from the state legal fight.”

Cummings says she’s holding out hope that Spiegel will win his appeal and that her case (and candidacy) will continue. “They make it so unreasonably difficult for any third-party candidate to make the ballot because they want to discourage people from running,” she says. “It’s the way they stay in control.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz.