A Chicago polling place. [Heather Cherone]

By Pascal Sabino, Block Club Chicago

In 1995, candidates running for mayor of Chicago needed to gather 2,261 nominating signatures from residents to earn a spot on the ballot. But in the most recent election, candidates were required to collect 12,500 signatures just to be considered.

In the 2019 mayoral election, over 20 candidates vied to get the signatures within the 90-day window to secure their spot on the ballot, and many of them succeeded — at first. But then, rival candidates became embroiled in a bitter legal struggle to knock each other off the ballot by calling into question the validity of the signatures on the petitions.

While the most established campaigns buffered their petitions with as much as three times more signatures than the 12,500 minimum, for others, the signatures that they lost by being invalidated by claims of forgery and fraud were enough to bounce them from the race.

By the time the February election came around, the field of candidates had narrowed to 14 candidates.

But for some in the statehouse, the procedural circus of collecting a huge number of signatures, then challenging competitors based on petition numbers as opposed to actual policy just muddies up an already contrived political process in Chicago.

That’s why State Rep. La Shawn Ford on Thursday filed HB5033, which would see the number of signatures required to be listed on the ballot dropped back to the amount required before being raised during the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley in the ’90s. Since then, Chicago has had the highest petition requirements for candidates running for mayor, treasurer and city clerk in the country.

Larger American cities have much smaller requirements, like New York which requires 3,750 signatures and Los Angeles which requires as few a 500 plus a filing fee. Even candidates running for the U.S. Senate have an easier time getting on the ballot, with only 5,000 signatures required. To run for governor of Illinois, a candidate needs only 5,000 signatures to earn a spot on the ballot for a Democratic or Republican primary.

“The current law of 12,500 valid signatures in Chicago favors big-money candidates and machine politics,” Ford said.

Ford’s proposed law would rescind the changes made by the Chicago Board of Elections during the Daley administration, which were credited as being politically motivated to stop competitors from challenging his claim to City Hall. Before then, the 2,261 signature requirement had been the rule in Chicago for every election since 1941.

Elections board spokesman Jim Allen said the board has had open discussions questioning whether the 12,500 is appropriate or should be reduced. But the board officially takes no position on the legislation and whether 2,261 signatures is a more appropriate requirement.

It is important to have a signature requirement so candidates can demonstrate they have community support before they land on a ballot, Allen said. It also prevents the ballot from getting cluttered with too many longshot candidates that might confuse voters.

But the longer list of signatures also makes it more difficult for the board to verify that candidates meet the requirements, and opens up more space for candidates to challenge each other’s petitions.

“Our administrative costs would go down with a reduction in the signature requirements. …There would be that many fewer objections for us to hear,” Allen said.

In 2010, candidates for mayor attempted to force the elections board to change the rule by filing a federal lawsuit claiming that 12,500 signatures was unreasonably high and unconstitutional. The lawsuit filed by candidates Jay Stone, Fredrick K. White, Frank L. Coconate, Denise Denison and William Walls was eventually dismissed by the court.