Illinois Democrats' law changing the choosing of legislative candidates faces GOP opposition

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Democrats have changed the way candidates for the General Assembly get on the ballot. Republicans are complaining that they changed the rules mid-game.

The Legislature's majority party speedily made the change last week by introducing the proposal, shepherding it through votes of approval by the House and Senate and securing the governor's signature within 30 hours.

The law, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker hailed as an ethics update, eliminates the drafting of legislative candidates by local political parties without putting them through primary elections.

Previously, someone who wasn't on the primary ballot — this year, March 19 — could still run in November after getting the nod from party leaders and collecting the requisite number of valid petition signatures by the June 3 deadline set by the Illinois State Board of Elections.

For supporters of the change, the previous process conjured up the archetype of the smoke- and party hack-filled room of yesteryear, where candidates were chosen in secret.

However, given the uncertainty of the law taking effect while candidates are currently collecting signatures, the elections board will continue to accept them. The measure's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Jay Hoffman, was asked whether the timing invites courtroom chaos with legal challenges from those shut out. In a written statement, he skirted that question.

“Voters rightly expect to be able to question candidates, to get to know them, and to learn their views on the issues that matter most," Hoffman said. “Insiders," he added, too often turn to the “backroom process of appointing candidates to the ballot at the last minute, circumventing the primary process and giving voters less opportunity to make informed decisions.”

Senate Republican Leader John Curran disagreed. The law, he said, is “how you steal an election.”

“Democrats can say what they want, but this isn’t about updating processes or cleaning up rules,” Curran said last week during debate on the measure. “It’s about putting their thumb on the scales of democracy to change the outcome of our elections."

Republicans say there are more than a dozen would-be candidates still collecting signatures.

The State Board of Elections is proceeding cautiously, as if there's no new law. Following the June 3 deadline for filing petitions is a one-week period during which there can be challenges to the validity of the names on a candidate's petitions, all of whom must be registered voters who live in the prescribed district. This year challenges might simply be that the petitions were filed after the new law took effect.

The board's four Democrats and four Republicans would likely consider objections and whether to sustain them at its July 9 meeting before certifying the ballot by Aug. 23.

“It's our approach to continue to accept filings and let the objection process play out,” board spokesman Matt Dietrich said. “Presumably the losing side of the objection process will go to court.”

During Senate debate on the plan, Senate President Don Harmon, the Democratic sponsor, acknowledged questions about the timing. But the change is one he has sought for several years despite previous resistance from the House.

“What we have here before us is an opportunity to end a corrosive practice where, strategically, people avoid primaries to see what the lay of the land is, and then pick the candidate best suited for November after the primary has been settled on the other side,” Harmon said.

“There’s a problem with the practice," Harmon said. "People who want to run for office should face the voters before they’re the nominee of a major political party.”