Petition challenge brings up questions


by Mike Kroll

The Zephyr, Galesburg, July 8, 2010


Clearly there are few things more arcane or less intriguing to the average citizen than debating the details and intricacies of election law. This situation doesn’t improve when that debate goes on for nearly five hours. Yet that is exactly what took place much of Tuesday in the basement of the Knox County Courthouse. At stake is a ballot spot for woman who initially sought to be slated as a Republican candidate for Knox County Treasurer. When that party’s Central Committee declined to slate her to fill a vacancy, she later filed as an Independent candidate for the same office.

Discussions at the hearing didn’t quite digress to the level of the meaning of “is” but they did spend a lot of time discussing whether a binder clip constitutes a binding and whether a meeting of a party central committee is a “caucus.”

On June 17th, Penny Williamson submitted paperwork with the Knox County Clerk’s office to be placed on the November general election ballot as an Independent candidate for Knox County Treasurer. On June 28th a petition challenging Williamson’s eligibility to be placed on the ballot was filed with that same office and sought a hearing before the County Electoral Board. The objections include the manner in which her paperwork was submitted; that her legal residency is in Fulton rather than Knox County; and challenging some 654 of the 1,749 petition signatures submitted thereby putting her “valid” signature count 119 below the required 1,214. But apparently most damning is the objection that because Williamson sought to be slated by the Republicans and was turned away that she is not eligible to then run as an Independent candidate for the same office in the same election cycle.

These objections were filed by Norm Winick, Steve Buck and Jim Jacobs — all of Galesburg — and they were represented by Galesburg attorney Doug Mustain. Williamson represented herself at the hearing with non-attorney assistance by Henry County blogger, political consultant and candidate for the Henry County Board Jon Zahm of Osco, Ill. (about midway between Cambridge and Orion). Zahm, formerly of Batavia in Kane County, worked with the Mike Huckabee Presidential campaign in 2008 and is the co-founder of the Henry County Tea Party organization.

The Electoral Board was composed of Circuit Clerk Kelly Cheesman, State’s Attorney John Pepmeyer and Sheriff Dave Clague, who acted as chair. Illinois State Statutes specify that County Clerk Scott Erickson would normally fill the role as chair but because Erickson was subpoenaed as a witness — originally by the petitioners and later by the respondents — he had to recuse himself from serving.

At the hearing’s onset both Mustain and Zahm declined to make opening statements but Zahm did attempt to challenge the makeup of the Electoral Board itself. Zahm wanted to ask Pepmeyer and Clague if they had ever publicly endorsed Democratic candidate and incumbent County Treasurer Robin Davis, or circulated petitions on her behalf, or displayed Davis’ yard signs or signed Davis’ petitions. Zahm’s clear implication was that as Democratic officials themselves, Pepmeyer and Clague could be less than objective. Outside of confirming that both men had signed Davis’ nominating petitions this line of inquiry went nowhere.

Later in the hearing, Zahm attempted to question the motivations of the objectors seeking to disqualify them from filing such an objection because all three are Democrats presumably supporting Davis. Winick is a long-time chair of the Knox County Democratic Party and Buck served as a Democratic County Clerk. Exactly why their motivations would matter more than the facts in evidence was never made clear, particularly when the most damning testimony in the hearing came from Knox County Republicans.

The first issue addressed by Mustain was Williamson’s residency. Facts not in dispute were that prior to the February primary Williamson lived near Avon in Fulton County and that she voted in the Fulton County Republican primary. “I voted in the Avon [Fulton County] Republican primary in February,” said Williamson. She testified that she changed her primary address in “mid-February” to a house that’s been in her family for years in Galesburg at 346 E. Fifth St. but that she continues to spend considerable time at the Avon address — “typically two to three days per week or more.” She assists in the care of her elderly father. “Some weeks I spend the whole week at the Fifth Street address but most weeks I spend as much time in Avon as in Galesburg,” stated Williamson. The Galesburg home had been owned by Williamson’s deceased mother.

Mustain asked her to show her Illinois drivers license to show the board what address was listed on it. She testified that while she did officially change her address with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office (calling it incorrectly the Department of Motor Vehicles) in February, she declined to have a new license produced reflecting that new address. “Being a fiscally conservative person I chose not to spend the $10 to purchase a new driver’s license.”

When Williamson attempted to register as a Galesburg voter following the February primary, the then Executive Director of the Galesburg Election Commission, Colleen McPherrin, would not register her because Williamson failed to meet McPherrin’s two-ID standard of demonstrating residency. Williamson did succeed in getting registered later at the County Clerk’s office.

Still working to show that Williamson had never abandoned her former Avon address, Mustain established that she continues to have many of her bills mailed to Avon, including the Fifth Street property tax bill, Ameren and Galesburg water bill. City of Galesburg Assessor Darrell Lovell testified that Williamson has never filed a request for the owner occupied exemption to lower the Fifth Street property tax bill, something extremely few homeowners pass up at their primary residence.

Mustain also called Galesburg Finance Director Gloria Osborn to testify about Williamson’s water bills at the Fifth Street address and what was categorized as suspiciously low water usage. During the February-April billing cycle water usage at the Fifth Street address was only three units while “a typical single residential water user in Galesburg used between 6-10 units of water during the same time period.”

Williamson countered by noting that she does spend considerable time in Avon caring for her father where she washes most of her clothes and that while in Galesburg she is an extremely frugal water user. “I don’t think I will ever sever my life-long tie to Fulton County. That is where I was raised and where my father continues to live. While Williamson acknowledged that it was true she never filed an official notice with the Post Office to forward her mail to the Fifth Street address she says she has begun to have many of her bills sent there.

The next objection addressed by Mustain was the manner in which Williamson’s paperwork was submitted to the Knox County Clerk’s office. Illinois Election Code specifies exactly how nomination papers are to be “bound” when submitted: “...Such sheets, before being presented to the electoral board or filed with the proper officer of the electoral district or division of the state or municipality, as the case may be, shall be neatly fastened together in book form, by placing the sheets in a pile and fastening them together at one edge in a secure and suitable manner, and the sheets shall then be numbered consecutively....”

The point of this requirement is to insure the integrity of each candidate’s nominating papers. Properly securing them to avoid the possibility of pages becoming lost, mis-sorted, altered or replaced once they are filed. Knox County Deputy Clerk for Elections, Shiela Parkin testified that most often such petitions are stapled along the top edge but that Williamson presented an unusually large number of pages rendering such stapling impractical. Williamson contends that when she submitted her petitions that they were securely bound by a large metal spring file clip and that this method is both customary and meets the state requirements.

Mustain disputed both points. Deputy Clerk Dana Mitchell was filling in for Parkin on the day Williamson submitted her petitions to the Clerk’s office. “I don’t remember there being any kind of clip on [Williamson’s] petitions. She presented them to me unbound.” Mitchell testified that she looked over the petition paperwork and noted that while Williamson had failed to complete the box identifying the county on her statement of candidacy that all the pages were numbered and in proper order. Williamson filled in “County of Knox” and Mitchell said she neatly organized the thick stack of paperwork and put a large rubber band around it before placing in on Parkin’s desk. “I just wanted to make sure that the forms she were submitting were properly filled out and complete and I referenced a cheat sheet we had created as I looked over the paperwork,” noted Mitchell.

Williamson filed her petitions on Thursday June 17th and Parkin returned to work on Friday June 18th to find them on top of her desk. “They had a rubber band around them and no other form of fastening. I put a large binder clip on the paperwork the day I returned.” When Zahm asked Parkin if she had signed nominating petitions for Davis she answered yes, but then indignantly noted that while she considers Davis a friend and colleague that she takes her duties very seriously and would never permit her judgment to be swayed by such friendship.

The final, and apparently most damning objection presented by Mustain was that Williamson, by requesting to be slated on the Republican ballot and participating in a meeting of Republican precinct committeemen where they voted not to place her on the ballot rendered herself ineligible to run as an Independent candidate. Illinois Election code reads: “...A candidate seeking election to an office for which candidates of political parties are nominated by caucus who is a participant in the caucus and who is defeated for his or her nomination at such a caucus, is ineligible to be listed on the ballot at that general or consolidated election as an independent candidate...”

Knox County Republican Party chair Marc Young testified that he organized a party caucus to slate candidates for two vacant slots on the November election ballot, Regional Superintendent of Schools and County Treasurer. Young said that he had e-mail all ten of the elected Republican Precinct Committeemen, including Erickson, to inform them of the meeting that was held in the party office at Hawthorne Centre.

The basic facts surrounding this meeting of Republicans to consider slating candidates are not in dispute by either party. Young testified that Williamson approached him about being slated for County Treasurer and that she was invited to the party caucus where she gave an opening statement and was interviewed by the eight Committeemen present before her name was nominated and seconded. The committeemen then met in private to discuss Williamson before taking a weighted vote on whether or not to slate her. During her testimony, Williamson acknowledged that this account was true and it was also corroborated by the testimony of two other Committeemen present, County Board member Wayne Saline and Erickson.

Williamson and Zahm contend that this process did not constitute a “caucus” and therefore her participation should not disqualify Williamson from running as an independent candidate. She testified, “I was told my Marc Young that it wasn’t a caucus.” But Young disputed her statement, “We have always called these meetings caucuses. She presented herself to be interviewed and was nominated and duly seconded but she failed to receive enough votes to be slated on the ballot.” The written minutes of the meeting taken by Ted Guenseth at the time call it a “caucus.”

Zahm said that just because these meetings have always been called caucuses doesn’t make it so. He pointed out a number of procedural issues that he said are required to be called a caucus including invitations by certified or registered mail (rather than by e-mail), use of a participant sign-in sheet (rather than a roll call), a complete electronic record of the meeting (rather than simply written minutes) and the presence of legal counsel.

The most complicated and time-consuming area of objection was barely touched upon at Tuesday’s hearing, the 654 petition signatures Mustain alleges are invalid for a variety of reasons. Signatures were challenged where they were printed rather than signed in cursive writing; or where it appeared that a husband and wife’s were signed by single individual; or where the address shown on the petition does not match the address registered with election authorities; or the address is not within Knox County; or the address is missing or incomplete; or that appear more than once or which are illegible or unreadable.

To properly assess these objections, the Electoral Board would need to sit down with the petitions in front of a computer containing voter information and scans of signature samples to go line-by-line through the petitions. The Electoral Board declined to commit on exactly what process would be used to accomplish this task but is appeared clear none of them relished tackling this endeavor.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Mustain reminded the Electoral Board that “only one objection needs to be sustained for the petitions to be stricken.” Zahm noted that “it seems like the procedures used during this meeting were sketchy” and “I don’t believe that it was a real caucus according to the election code.” Zahm concluded by noting that the spirit of the election code demands that “in a close call you should err on the side of ballot access.”

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing no plan for examining the petition signatures was announced by the Electoral Board nor was a decision reached on Williamson’s ballot eligibility but the board did say they would address these issues “in short order.” If they rule against Williamson it almost surely will be appealed and that appeal must be completed before final ballots must be submitted to the Illinois Board of Elections. There isn’t much time for dilly-dallying.