Federal judge grants more time and allows fewer signatures during pandemic

A federal judge’s ruling Thursday made official what Capitol News Illinois reported earlier this week: Requirements for third-party candidates to be on November ballots in the state will be loosened this election cycle.

Rebecca Pallmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District federal court, agreed with the state’s Libertarian and Green parties that stay-at-home and social distancing requirements in Illinois have made gathering the required number of petition signatures by June 22 “practically impossible.”

The parties filed a lawsuit on April 2, and attorneys for Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Elections acknowledged in a court filing “the need for some accommodations.”

Because both the Libertarian and Green parties are considered “new” under state election rules, their candidates must obtain a greater number of signatures than those with “established” parties — typically, Democrats and Republicans.

Those same regulations dictate “new” party and independent candidates have from March 24 until June 22 to gather enough signatures — in person with a campaign worker watching — to qualify for inclusion on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

Pritzker instituted his stay-at-home order March 20, and announced Thursday it will extend through at least May 30.

“The combined effect of the restrictions on public gatherings imposed by Illinois’ stay-at-home order and the usual in-person signature requirements in the Illinois Election Code is a nearly insurmountable hurdle for new party and independent candidates attempting to have their names placed on the general election ballot,” Judge Pallmeyer wrote in her opinion.

For only this election cycle, petition signatures may be collected remotely, Pallmeyer ordered. Candidates may mail voters a petition or share a digital file online or by email. Voters then are able to print it out, sign it and either send a hard copy to the candidate through the mail or electronically in an emailed attachment or as a photograph.

Voters can also electronically sign the forms from their smartphone, with a computer mouse or using a laptop’s trackpad.

The deadline for candidates to submit signatures to the Board of Elections was pushed by Pallmeyer to Aug. 7, more than six weeks after the deadline established by law.

Also, the number of signatures that candidates with third parties are required to gather was cut by 90 percent.

Independents or those in a “new” party needed at least 25,000 signatures to run for president or a seat in the U.S. Senate. Under Pallmeyer’s terms, the minimum required number of signatures is 2,500.

In addition, Libertarian and Green candidates who were successfully placed on Illinois’ general election ballot either in 2016 or 2018 immediately qualify for inclusion on the 2020 ballot.

According to the State Board of Elections, the parties are able to nominate a candidate to run for president and the U.S. Senate. Also, Green Party candidates are able to choose a candidate to run in the 5th and 12th Congressional district races.

“The court is satisfied that the ... order will ameliorate (the parties’) difficulty meeting the statutory signature requirement due to the COVID-19 restrictions,” Pallmeyer wrote in her opinion, “...while accommodating the state’s legitimate interest in ensuring that only parties with a measurable modicum of public support will gain access to the 2020 general election ballot.”

The judge, in her opinion, added “numerous states” reduced the signature requirement for candidates, including Michigan, New York and Massachusetts.

A compromise ruling

The final decision is not one that the political parties, nor the state, requested as the lawsuit proceedings began.

The Libertarian and Green parties wanted Illinois’ signature collection mandates to be waived or suspended this general election cycle. And if that was not possible, they wanted the state to develop fair, reasonable rules for candidates to meet petition signature requirements during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Although we appreciate the extraordinary and challenging circumstances from which this case arises, the fact is that it’s the state’s obligation to provide a procedure, a constitutional procedure, by which candidates can demonstrate that they have the modicum of support necessary to qualify for the ballot,” Oliver Hall, the parties’ attorney and founder of the Center for Competitive Democracy, said in a court hearing, according to a transcript.

Attorneys for Pritzker and the elections board initially proposed allowing electronic petition submissions of hand-written signatures, maintaining the June 22 deadline and reducing the number of signatures by 50 percent.

The Board of Elections was “very concerned” about pushing that deadline to Aug. 7, its representative Michael Kasper said, according to a court transcript.

“That bumps up against the other statutory deadlines and the deadlines imposed to get military ballots out under federal law,” he said.

Representatives of all parties said the judge’s decision addresses their concerns.

“In general, we think Judge Pallmeyer’s order is a well-reasoned and fair resolution of the difficult issues raised by this case, and that it provides the plaintiffs with substantial relief,” Hall said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the State Board of Elections said its directors “think the order serves the best interests of all parties involved.”

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, which represented Pritzker, said the opinion is being reviewed and options evaluated. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Pritzker “supports an open and fair electoral process.”

 “In light of the fact that the period for these candidates to gather signatures is occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor supports the court’s order allowing candidates additional means to obtain actual signatures for their ballot petitions, such as through email, and additional time in which to submit those petitions,” the spokesperson said in an email.

One aspect absent from Pallemeyer’s order is a mandate that the State Board of Elections notifies voters of the ballot requirement changes — namely that voters will be contacted by candidates to electronically sign their petitions.

Sam Cahnman, an attorney representing an independent candidate for president who joined the lawsuit later, said the elections board should “at a minimum post a big alert on the opening page of their website, alerting readers to the new rules ordered by the court.”