Incumbent doesn’t object to challengers’ nominating petitions despite their expectations

By Samone Blair
Medill Reports

“We know the games that they unfortunately play and the tactics they utilize to basically try to silence the voices of anyone who dares to challenge the establishment,” said Anthony Clark, Democrat candidate for Illinois’ 7th U.S. Congressional District in the March 17, 2020 primary election.

Sure enough, Kina Collins, a challenger candidate in the 7th Congressional District, has had her nominating petitions challenged. However, it wasn’t by incumbent Danny K. Davis as expected but by lawyers connected to another challenger candidate, Kristine Schanbacher.

Objections to U.S. Congressional candidates could be filed between Dec. 2, which was the deadline to submit nominating petitions, and Dec. 9. If sustained, a nominating petition challenge will remove a candidate from the primary ballot.

Candidates began circulating nominating petitions on Sept. 3. The process involves collecting signatures from registered voters in the district to demonstrate their interest in seeing a candidate on the ballot in March. For the 7th district, 1,356 valid signatures are required.

Clark is one of three Democrat challengers running against incumbent Danny K. Davis in the primary.

First elected in November 1996, Rep. Davis has served as congressman for the 7th district for nearly 23 years. Before that, he was alderman of the 29th Ward followed by serving on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

The Illinois Seventh Congressional District includes a diverse range of Chicago neighborhoods, from the Gold Coast in the north, south to Kenwood and Englewood, and west to Austin, Oak Park, and suburbs like Westchester. (Source: GovTrack)

This is Clark’s second run against Rep. Davis. He filed in the 2018 election, too. He is a non-profit director, a teacher at Oak Park River Forest High School and a military veteran. In the 2018 primary, he received 26.1% of the vote to Davis’ 73.9%.

Of his 2018 nominating petitions, Clark claimed, “We actually were challenged multiple times by the incumbent, Danny K. Davis. So thankfully, we had a wonderful lawyer that stood in solidarity with us through that process. We had that experience, so we know what to expect from the incumbent.”

Gun violence reform and healthcare advocate Collins and attorney Schanbacher are also challenging Davis for his Congressional seat.

When asked before the objection filing period if he planned to challenge any of the other candidates’ nominating petitions, Rep. Davis responded that he did not know if he would.

“You really can’t tell. Because if you are certain that the requirements have been met, it would be foolhardy to challenge them. You could use that time doing something else. Because you know that in all likelihood, the person met the requirements will be ruled on the ballot,” Rep. Davis said.

“Strategically, it will be interesting to see if the incumbent chooses to challenge this time,” Clark said. “The more individuals in a race, they may not even challenge us this time around because we’re eating each other’s votes up…but if they do we’re prepared.”

Objections usually question the validity of the signatures, like someone signing the name of a deceased person, someone not residing in the district, or someone not being registered to vote at the address that they stated on the nominating petition.

Additionally, objections may question the petition circulator, who collects and signs each page of 10 signatures, for instance, that the circulator didn’t actually collect the signatures or that they made an error in getting the petitions notarized.

Matt Dietrich, public information officer at the Illinois State Board of Elections, explained in responding by email to a FOIA request, “Objectors have to be extremely detailed in what they object to, so those files can get pretty dense. Our staff then has to go through them page by page and check every signature/registration that’s being challenged on our voter database – often with the objector and candidate sitting on either side during the review. It can get pretty hectic and stressful.”

In the 2018 election cycle, former State Sen. Rickey Hendon and Rep. Davis’ District Director Cherita Logan filed objections against both of the challenger candidates, Clark and lawyer Ahmed Salim.

Rep. Davis argued, “It’s pretty much a tradition in Illinois that individuals will look at the petitions filed by their opponents…Strategically, it probably makes more sense to even allow people to remain on the ballot if they didn’t meet the requirements, but sometimes I have decided to challenge the petitions of someone who did not meet the requirements basically because while they have a right to run, they also have a responsibility to comply with the requirements.”

Clark claimed that Rep. Davis’ representatives challenged both the validity of his signatures and his and his mother’s due diligence as petition circulators.

“That is valuable time where you could double back and make multiple impressions with your community… and make contact with new individuals. But when you’re challenged, you have to spend time going through the board of election, going through this challenge process,” Clark said.

Unlike Clark’s experience, the objection against Salim’s petitions was sustained. Based on a clerical error during the objection meeting that placed him in the 5th District instead of the 7th, the necessary number of signatures were not reviewed during the meeting and he was removed from the ballot.

“This entire process is just a game of getting weaker candidates off the ballot,” said Salim, “They challenge every signature regardless of any potential issue and the idea is any challenge obviously can throw away a good signature.”

After the objection meeting, Salim’s wife, Asra Salim, told Hendon that she didn’t understand why he was challenging the signatures and Salim said, “His response was, ‘This is what we do in Chicago’, like if you can’t handle it, don’t [run for office]”.

Salim questioned the methods of Davis’ representatives in objecting to challenger candidates’ petitions and alleged, “I had the congressman’s lawyer coming up to me telling me that if I signed an affidavit saying that Anthony Clark had underage kids overseeing his petitions that they wouldn’t challenge me anymore and they would let me get on the ballot.”

Salim identified that lawyer as Andrew Finko, who responded to the claim, “I don’t recall such a discussion with Salim specifically. However, I do recall that there were allegations of Anthony Clark enlisting students to help with petition gathering, among other concerns in his circulation, but the evidence didn’t support the allegations.”

Finko also shared his own opinion of the objection process being a tool to remove candidates. He explained, “The Election Code is not at all about ballot access. It’s about ballot exclusion…It’s an obstacle course, with 101 ways to be removed from the ballot. Experienced political party operatives know the drill and have the resources to overwhelm with signatures, but rookies don’t.”

Neither Hendon nor Logan responded to request for comment.

Knowledge of former nominating petition challenges in the district caused the 2020 candidates to collect extra signatures and prepare for the objection process.

Molly Aronson, field director for Collins’ campaign, said, “We are expecting and ready to be challenged… [Rep. Davis] knows that we’ve heard from his people that he sees us as a formidable threat.”

The expectation of a nominating petition from Davis encouraged Collins to collect extra signatures that would be needed during the review process despite the objection coming from another challenger.

“We had gotten this talk from veterans who had already run for Congressional seats, progressive insurgents who are supporting our campaign who have schooled us about the process, and that’s why we made it a point to really work hard to collect as many signatures as possible,” Collins said.

Collins’ campaign submitted 377 pages of signatures, which Aronson estimated included 3300 signatures. The State Board of Elections does not count the number of signatures submitted but instead the number of petitions. The three challengers submitted petitions with ten signatures each, but the sheet does not need to be filled with all ten signatures to be counted.

Calvin Cottrell, outreach director for Schanbacher’s campaign, said, “Rep. Davis has a reputation of challenging signatures, so we have a very strong process in place to make sure that we’re going to have enough signatures. We’re going to be turning in multiples of what the minimum number is in order to get her on the ballot.”

Cottrell estimated that Schanbacher turned in approximately 4,500 signatures. Her campaign submitted 462 pages of signatures and Clark’s submitted 354.

Unlike the other candidates, Davis’ campaign used petitions with 20 signatures per sheet. His campaign filed 651 sheets.

When asked if they intended to challenge the other candidates before the filing period, the challenger candidates had different points of view.

“We don’t believe in signature challenges. We believe in truly allowing each and every individual that have truly worked hard and are boots to the ground and does the work to collect the signatures, they should be able to be on the ballot,” Clark said.

“We can’t speak for any of the other candidates. I think this is about ballot access. If you’re good, then your campaign will win, and if we’re good, we’ll win. You challenging people is just essentially a way of trying to drain resources.” Collins said.

Cottrell said, “I think we’re just gonna have to see the signatures that people turn in. I don’t expect the other challengers to be turning in bad petitions… But in Illinois, and Chicago politics, there’s a history of people turning in bad signatures.”

Photo at top: Kina Collins prepares the nominating petitions that she circulated to be notarized. Candidates for the seventh congressional district had to collect at least 1,356 signatures and submit their petitions by Dec. 2. (Samone Blair/MEDILL)