September 2013 • Volume 101 • Number 9 • Page 446
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Law authorizes 17-year-olds to vote, online voter registration - but wait, there’s more
Amendments to Illinois election law also create a board of election commissioners for Lake County, require more petition signatures for a would-be Chicago alderman, and make other changes.
On July 29, Governor Quinn signed into law a 194-page omnibus bill that, among other things, allows many 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections and permits any Illinois resident to register to vote via the Internet.
The law permits 17-year-olds to vote in the primary if they will be 18 by the time the corresponding general election is held. It also requires the State Board of Elections to establish an online voter registration system on its website. The Board must further provide "technical specifications" to other election authorities, such as county clerks and election commissions, so they can process online voter registration applications. These systems must be operational no later than July 1, 2014.
While online voter registration may be the most popular aspect of the legislation for lay persons, election-law attorneys are focusing on several other changes that affect certain electoral board proceedings, candidate-eligibility requirements, campaign-finance disclosure regulations, and other detailed points of law.
Higher contribution threshold for disclosure requirements. Chicago-based election attorney James P. Nally applauded lawmakers for raising the threshold above which campaign-finance committees are required to start filing disclosure reports with the State Board of Elections.
Under the old law, committees with a total of $3,000 or more in contributions and expenditures within a 12-month period were required to file a statement of organization with the Board and thereafter were obligated to file disclosure reports on at least a quarterly basis. Public Act 98-115 raised the bar to $5,000.
Nally said the old $3,000 mark has been around for so long that, adjusting for inflation, it probably equals about $10,000 in current value. That makes the new $5,000 threshold reasonable, in spite of the public policy favoring disclosure. "The whole idea of campaign disclosure is a good thing, but on the flip side you're probably choking off democracy at some point - particularly for smaller campaigns," Nally said.
Nally said many local campaigns are run with shoestring budgets, which makes it difficult for candidates to obtain legal services to fully understand and comply with disclosure laws. Furthermore, the cost of a single political mailer can easily reach or exceed $3,000.
That means many small-scale campaigns end up clogging the Board's docket of violations hearings even though their low-level financial activities hardly make a splash in the sea of politics.
"Smaller committees often end up before the Board with late filings…and other inadvertent mistakes and then end up with fines that are higher than the total amount of money they ever had," Nally said. "It's really become kind of a punitive thing for people running for these lower offices where, even though they weren't trying to avoid any legal responsibilities, they couldn't afford help to figure out how to follow the rules. Raising it to $5,000 allows the State Board to pay more attention to the bigger committees and bigger issues."
More petition signatures required for Chicago aldermen. The public act also raised the number of petition signatures required to get an aldermanic candidate's name printed on the ballot in Chicago. The former requirement equaled two percent of the total number of votes cast within the ward in the last election. That number is now doubled to four percent.
"There were some wards with lower voter turnouts where you could get on the ballot with as little as 50 or 100 signatures," Nally said.
For an office like Chicago alderman, which pays about $120,000 per year plus expense accounts and office budgets, Nally said it's reasonable to require petition signatures in an amount that is similar to General Assembly races, in which state representative candidates need 500 signatures and senate candidates need 1,000.
"The purpose of the signature requirements is to have a manageable ballot [without too many names cluttering it up] and for the candidate to show a modicum of support in the community," Nally said. "The old two-percent rule wasn't necessarily accomplishing that."
Those who owe municipality now eligible for office. The public act also amended the Municipal Code in what appears to be an attempt to undo the Illinois Supreme Court's decision in the 2008 case of Cinkus v. Stickney Municipal Officers Electoral Bd., 228 Ill.2d 200, 886 N.E.2d 1011.
The Municipal Code stated that a person was "not eligible for an elective municipal office" if he was in arrears on a debt owed to the municipality. That was previously interpreted as an office-holding eligibility requirement, and the winner of a municipal election could repay debts prior to being sworn into office.
However, the supreme court held in Cinkus that the law applied when candidates signed the sworn oath on their statement of candidacy forms, and their names could be removed from the ballot prior to the election if the debts were not cured by the time the statement was filed with election authorities. The newly amended Municipal Code now states that a person is "not eligible to take the oath of office for an elective municipal office" if in arrears on a debt (emphasis added), which, Nally said, appears to revert everything back to the pre-Cinkus style of enforcement.
Model language for home-rule referenda. The Municipal Code was also amended to include suggested language for a referendum question in municipalities that want to adopt home rule powers. Nally said election lawyers should always look outside the Election Code to other statutes that could control the content and procedures for specific kinds of referenda, and this amendment will make it easier to draft a lawful petition or resolution for home rule proponents.
Hello Lake County board of election commissioners. In a peculiar twist, this legislation took control over elections out of the hands of the Lake County clerk's office by establishing a county board of election commissioners. This narrowly targeted law applies only to "[a]ny county with a population of more than 700,000 persons…that borders another state and borders no more than 2 other Illinois counties." Lake is the only county in Illinois that meets that description.
"The Lake County clerk is challenging that one in the courts," Nally said, "so we'll just have to see how it plays out."
Goodbye "education officers electoral board." County clerks and election commissions will, however, pick up some extra work under these amendments, for the public act abolished the statutory "education officers electoral board" and transferred jurisdiction of those ballot-objection cases to the county level.