URBANA – City Clerk Phyllis Clark apparently violated state election law by failing to hold a public lottery to determine party ballot position for Urbana's April 7 municipal election.
Clark's mistaken interpretation of election law resulted in her political party, the Democratic Party, getting the coveted top-of-the-ballot position. And it has the Republican and Green party candidates for mayor and an independent mayoral candidate questioning how such a mistake could happen.
Clark said she became aware of the mistake when it was brought to her attention by Durl Kruse, a Green Party candidate for mayor, who asked why there hadn't been a lottery to determine where party candidates would appear on the ballot.
"I called the corporate counsel (for the State Board of Elections) who told me 'yes,' I should have had a lottery," Clark said.
Clark said she had checked some weeks ago and talked by telephone to a woman with the State Board of Elections, whose name she doesn't recall, and that she had been told she should put parties on the ballot based on which parties' candidates filed petitions first.
Clark said Democratic city council candidate Brandon Bowersox had filed first, Republican council candidate Heather Stevenson was the second party candidate to file and that Kruse filed to run a few days later. Based on this, Clark said she decided that Democrats should appear first on the ballot, Republicans second, Green Party candidates third and independents last.
Steve Sandvoss, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, said that state law calls for a lottery to be conducted, with three days' written notice of the time and place where the lottery will be conducted, whenever candidates for more than one established political party are running in an election.
"This doesn't appear to have been done in this case," he said.
Sandvoss said he isn't sure what the remedy for the situation is, now that early voting has already begun and absentee ballots have been sent out.
"Now that early voting has begun, replacing ballots is an expensive proposition," he said. "A candidate could go to court and seek a remedy."
Sandvoss added that the State Board of Elections has no injunctive power and can't order election officials what to do.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden said that if the city holds a lottery, he would be willing to reprint Urbana ballots at county expense, as long as the city files an amended certification with his office saying there had been an error made with respect to party placement. A committee with Democratic, Republican and Green election judges could transfer the votes from early ballots and absentee ballots to the new ballots based on how residents voted, he said.
The four candidates for mayor expressed differing views about the controversy.
Incumbent Mayor Laurel Prussing, a Democrat, said the dispute was based on an honest mistake by Clark, who she said was given bad advice.
"Is this some terrible problem that requires a cure, or is it a tempest in a teapot?" Prussing asked. "I think it's a tempest in a teapot."
Prussing said she doesn't think voters are influenced by ballot placement.
Rex Bradfield, the Republican candidate for mayor, disagreed, saying he thinks getting the first mayoral position on the ballot is worth between 300 and 500 votes. He said he'll have to spend extra campaign money to make up for Prussing's advantage.
Kruse sent Clark a letter Monday saying "your failure to conduct this lottery has violated state election code, unjustly and unfairly placed candidates from the Republican and Green parties at a potential disadvantage, and undermined the public's confidence in a legally conducted election."
Kruse requested a meeting with Clark, Urbana City Attorney Ronald O'Neal, Shelden and the leadership of the three established parties "to resolve this issue as quickly as possible."
Bradfield and the two Green Party candidates for alderman, Gary Storm and Mark Mallon, also signed the letter.
Rob McColley, an independent candidate for mayor, called the oversight by Clark "troubling."