Judge to reject lawsuit over ballot obstacles for constitutional amendment
Committee’s attorney says state’s argument has 'political motivations'
By REBECCA ANZEL
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — A judge on Thursday sided against an Illinois organization that claimed restrictions implemented to combat the novel coronavirus made it impossible to gather the necessary signatures to place a constitutional amendment on November’s general election ballot.
The official order is expected to be released sometime Thursday, a court clerk said.
The Committee for the Illinois Democracy Amendment is advocating for a constitutional change that would obligate the General Assembly to take roll call votes on bills proposing “stronger ethical standards for Illinois public officials.”
It would also allow residents to propose related bills by submitting a petition with at least 100,000 signatures.
The committee’s attorneys argued in a court document that social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions “forced” voters to weigh their health against their First Amendment rights.
To successfully secure a spot on the ballot, proponents must gather 363,813 hand-written signatures — or, 8 percent of votes cast for the governor in the last election — and deliver the papers to the secretary of state’s office six months before the Nov. 3 general election. That deadline passed May 3.
The committee, in a court document, argued that threshold was impossible to meet given the issuance of Gov. JB Pritzker’s disaster proclamation and stay-at-home order less than two months before the cutoff.
U.S. district court Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer disagreed after a hearing lasting about an hour. She rejected its request to reduce the signature requirement by 50 percent, enable voters to sign petitions electronically and allow those documents to be submitted electronically as well. The committee also wanted the May 3 deadline extended to Aug. 3, giving proponents the days they allege they lost.
The requests were similar to ones Pallmeyer granted the Libertarian and Green Parties when they sued the state alleging third party candidates could not realistically meet the requirements to qualify for the November ballot.
The judge ultimately decided against granting those in this case.
“We’re seriously considering an appeal to the seventh circuit on an emergency basis because we want to be able to circulate these petitions,” John Mauck, one of the committee’s representatives, said in an interview. “The stay-at-home order from Gov. Pritzker is a state action which precluded our clients’ civil liberties.”
Attorneys for the Illinois State Board of Elections and secretary of state’s office previously argued in a court document that at least two of the committee’s requests — extending the deadline and reducing the signatures needed — would “contravene” requirements included in the state constitution.
That “would pose near insurmountable difficulties” for the state, they argued.
And the committee’s requests “would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the State Board of Elections and Secretary of State to fulfill their legal obligations related to a proposed constitutional amendment,” according to their filing. “In addition...the (requests) could potentially throw Illinois’ electoral system into disarray during an already tumultuous time.”
That argument shows “the state imagines a parade of horribles and burdens” that do not exist, the committee’s attorneys responded.
Mauck said the proposed constitutional amendment is designed to “fight corruption, and we’re being fought by all these government agencies who don’t think we should be on the ballot.”
“I think the state has political motivations behind their legal arguments,” he added.
Negotiations fall flat
Pallmeyer’s decision comes after she previously asked both sides to negotiate a solution. According to a court transcript, there have been “a number” of conversations and conferences, but no solution was reached.
Mauck said the state offered a two-week deadline extension as long as a hard copy of the hand-signed petitions were submitted, according to a transcript.
But the committee wanted to turn in electronic petitions with electronic signatures. That would be “a simple and fair solution, and workable solution,” Mauck said in the transcript.
Erin Walsh, the Board of Elections’ attorney, took issue with the committee asking “various state agencies to completely rework their system for ballot access” at “the last minute.”
There is no proof the committee tried complying with the state’s established process before March, she added. According to documents filed with the board, the committee was founded on April 1.
But proponents began gathering signatures “in the past several weeks,” former Gov. Pat Quinn, another of the committee’s representatives, responded, according to a transcript.
Their efforts “essentially began” after members of the General Assembly who are on the state’s Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform “announced they were not going to make any recommendations” by their self-imposed due date at the end of March.
When asked by Pallmeyer how much progress canvassers made, Quinn said “it’s impossible to know exactly how many signatures you have until they’re collected,” according to a transcript.
The committee proposed that the state elections board and secretary of state’s office retool the online voter registration system to allow residents to electronically support a constitutional amendment initiative.
That system, passed into law in 2013 when Quinn was governor, could be “easily modified” to do so, he said.
Walsh said that suggestion is tantamount to the committee “trying to foist this untested program on the state of Illinois at the last minute,” according to a transcript.
And, according to that document, Pallmeyer said “whatever my views might be on the propriety of this electronic concept,” she does not have the legal authority to “order a different mechanism for the voting process in Illinois.”