2422783237_d22ae31c33_oBallot access statutes nearly always require that prospective candidates present a given number of valid voters’ signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. In Illinois, nomination for offices below the statewide level requires signatures from not less than 5% nor more than 8% of the registered voters who participated in the last preceding regular election.

So what happens if the prospective candidate falls a bit short? Is substantial compliance enough?

Late in the March term, the Illinois Supreme Court answered this question in Jackson-Hicks v. The East St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners: “No.”

Candidates in the election for Mayor of East St. Louis run on a nonpartisan basis. In order to be listed on the ballot, candidates are required to present 136 valid signatures. On their face, the incumbent mayor’s petitions contained 171 signatures. Another candidate for mayor challenged the incumbent’s petitions, arguing that he didn’t have enough valid signatures to qualify. During a hearing on the challenge, an attorney for the Election Board presented evidence that at least 48 of the mayor’s signatures were invalid, leaving him with no more than 123 valid signatures.

In its written decision, the Election Board concluded that the mayor had only 123 valid signatures. Nevertheless, the Board found that the mayor had substantially complied with the statute, and ordered that his name be included on the ballot. The Circuit Court affirmed that finding, as did the Appellate Court. In an opinion by Justice Karmeier following accelerated review (without oral argument), the Supreme Court unanimously reversed.

Since the primary had passed by the time the Court issued its decision, the Mayor argued that the case was moot. The Court disagreed, pointing out that there were only three candidates, making a primary unnecessary. Given that the challenger’s goal was to prevent the mayor’s name from appearing on the ballot, the Court was still able to offer the plaintiff full relief, meaning that the case was not moot.

The Mayor argued that the ballot access provisions of the Election Code were merely directory rather than mandatory. But the Court noted that the requirements of the Election Code were typically mandatory – and the statutes governing nomination papers were certainly no exception.

The Mayor argued that his nomination papers contained enough valid signatures to serve the underlying purpose of the law – to demonstrate that a candidate has initiative and at least a minimal appeal to the voters. The Court disagreed, writing that the “Mayor’s position is unprecedented, unworkable and contrary to law.” To hold that substantial compliance satisfies the statute “would require us to disregard the clear, unambiguous and mandatory language of the statute and graft onto it exceptions and limitations the legislature did not express.”

The Court acknowledged that a few cases from the Appellate Court had held that substantial compliance was enough when the candidate complied with the basic requirements of the Code in a technically deficient manner (such as including a single nonconforming page in a petition or filing a statement of economic interest in the wrong county). But the mayor hadn’t met the basic requirements of the Code at all, according to the Court: “Here, the candidate failed to meet a threshold requirement completely.”

Ultimately, the Court viewed the Mayor’s position as completely unworkable. If substantial compliance was good enough, “there would be no way to insure consistency from one electoral jurisdiction to another, from one election to another, or even from one race to another . . . Will 90% of the statutory minimum turn out to be enough? 75%? Less than that? Candidates will be left to speculate.”

The bottom line was simple, the Court said. The mandatory minimum signatures requirement was mandatory and had to be followed. Otherwise, the candidate doesn’t qualify for the ballot. The Court remanded to the Circuit Court with instructions to enter judgment requiring that the Mayor’s name be removed from the ballot, and that any votes cast in his favor before the ballot was corrected be disregarded.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Seattle Municipal Archives (no changes).