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Our View: Political motives often behind challenges

There must be some burden imposed on people who want to run for public office.

If appearing on the ballot in an election were as simple as filling out a form and submitting it to the county clerk, voters could be confronted with pages upon pages of people running for office on a lark. Some of them might even be elected.

So in Illinois, would-be candidates must collect signatures from registered voters on nominating petitions in support of their candidacy.

Once they are filed, nominating petitions are subject to challenges by residents – and that’s where the process sometimes veers off-track.

Petition challenges can be broadly construed as being in the public interest, but it’s often obvious that they’re politically motivated. It’s typical for the challenges to come from other candidates on the ballot or their surrogates.

Although challenges sometimes result in weeding out people whose carelessness would make them a bad choice for voters, they also can disqualify honest, decent candidates and deprive voters of a choice.                              

The rules for filing petitions have requirements on issues including numbering and binding of pages, who can circulate them, and notarization. In addition, there have been many ways that challengers have been able to argue that signatures of voters are not legitimate for one reason or another.

There’s an obvious incentive for filing these challenges: A candidate who succeeds in having a serious challenger thrown off the ballot increases her chances of victory.

For the primary election that will be held in March in DeKalb County, two petition challenges have been filed. In one, Riley Oncken, a Republican County Board candidate in District 3 is challenging the petition of rival candidate Clay Campbell, the former state’s attorney. Oncken says Campbell should be thrown off the ballot because the address on his voter registration is in a different County Board district than the one he’s running in.

In another, Earl Gable is challenging the petition of Republican District 4 county board candidate Laurie Emmer because he says that at least one of the signatures on it is from someone living outside the district. Gable lives in District 4 but is not a candidate.

The challenges are scheduled to be heard Friday by a three-member electoral board. County Clerk Douglas Johnson will be a member. Circuit Clerk Maureen Josh or a representative from her office will be as well.

The third person will be from the office of State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, a Democrat, who defeated Campbell in a contentious 2012 campaign.

It’s hard to say what qualifies those three as experts on election petition laws, but it will be up to them to make a ruling.

We hope the members of the board will be fair. If they should err, it should be on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. Voters deserve the opportunity to make the choice, not have it made for them.

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