Independent in Illinois

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David Lee
wanted to run
for office as
an Independent
in the
44th state
senate district.
found that to
even get on the ballot, he would need to collect 6,995 valid
signatures. He would need to file his petitions 323 days
before the general election (two and a half months before
any other independent candidate in the country). And the
signatures that he collected would need to come from voters
who did not want to vote in the primary election. Discouraged
by his chances, Lee gave up his bid for the 44th
state senate district and sued the members of the Illinois
State Board of Elections.
Lee won his suit in the 7th District Court of Appeals
this September. In Lee v. Keith, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS
23686, (7th Cir. 2006), the Court described Illinois’s ballot
access requirements in Illinois as “the most restrictive
in the nation” and having the result of eliminating Independent
candidates from the Illinois political scene.
Indeed, the effects of this case may have a significant effect
on the Illinois political scene.
In Illinois, there is a sharp distinction between independent
candidates and third party candidates. Third
party candidates, such as Joe Parnauskis, Socialist Equality
Party candidate for state senate, and Tom Abram, are third
party candidates. In order to get on the ballot, they were
required to collect a number of signatures equal to five
percent of the voters that voted for that office in the last
election. In addition, these candidates must file in June the
year of the General Election, instead of the Independent
filing deadline of 323 days before the election.
Independent candidates, those without any party affiliation
whatsoever, were required to collect signatures from
10% of the number of voters that cast a vote for that office
in the last election. There currently are no elected independent
officials in the state. State Senator James Meeks is
often described as an independent, but he ran and won
using the third party ballot access requirements as an
“Honesty and Integrity Party” candidate.
The prohibition on the ability of new parties and independents
to appear on the ballot in the United States has
only arisen in the last century. In 1896, twenty-two members
of the People’s Party were elected to the U.S. House of
Representatives and five held seats in the Senate. Significant
parties in the early 1900’s included the Union Labor
Party, the Socialist Labor Party, Progressive Party, Populist
Party, and the Prohibition Party. Minor political parties
have been attributed with the introduction of ideas such as
certain rights (child labor laws, women’s right to vote,
minimum wage etc.) into the political debate.
Restrictions to ballot access in the United States arose
for several reasons. Illinois, for example, raised its
statewide signature requirements from 1,000 signatures to
25,000 signatures in the 1930’s in an attempt to keep
Socialist Party candidates off of the ballot. In other states,
the reasons were more invidious; in many Southern states,
ballot access restrictions were put into place to prevent
new black political parties from gaining ground.
The restrictions to Independent candidates in Illinois are
more recent. The signature requirement to get on the ballot
as an Independent was increased from 5% to 10% of the
number of votes in the last election for that office in 1979.
Prior to 1979, 16 independent General Assembly candidates
qualified for the general election ballot from 1956
through 1978. After the enactment of the 10% requirement,
three independent candidates qualified for the ballot in
1980, but since that time, not a single independent General
Assembly candidate has qualified for the ballot in Illinois.
The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged that there
is a First Amendment right to appear on the ballot with a
person’s party of choice, but more recent decisions have
focused on the state having a “compelling state interest” to
limit the number of candidates on its ballots. The Court in
Lee v. Keith considered the compelling state interest of Illinois’s
Independent candidate restrictions and found that
the restrictions, were “not sustainable based on the state’s
asserted interest in deterring party splintering, factionalism,
and frivolous candidacies.”
The debate over ballot access restrictions centers on the
very purpose of elections. Is the purpose of our elections
solely to pick a winner? Or is there a broader purpose to
elections that involve the important role elections serve in
the debate over policies in this country? If so, it’s important
that many viewpoints be represented in that debate
and be given the opportunity to play a meaningful role in
the political process.
That debate will play an important role in the future of
Independent candidates in the state of Illinois, a future
which will be determined by the state legislature. In other
words, a future determined by a group of elected persons
who chose to appear with the terms “Republican” or “Democrat”
next to their names on the ballot in an election where
the voters did not have the option of choosing an Independent
candidate. The results of this debate could contribute to
a friendlier atmosphere to those who want to appear on the
ballot as an Independent or a new party candidate, leading
ultimately to a livelier election process in Illinois.

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