A recent appellate court decision is a victory for voter choice and a defeat for back-room ballot schemers.
Cunningham Township Assessor Dan Stebbins wanted to run for re-election unopposed in the upcoming April 9 election, so he pursued legal gamesmanship to knock his opponent off the ballot.
This week, a state appeals court ruled that the name of Stebbins' opponent, Laura Sandefur, should not be stricken. Much to Stebbins' chagrin, he will have an opponent, and, much to the public's benefit, the voters will have a choice for this low-profile office.
That's not the whole story, but it's the gist of the story. Unfortunately, it's part of a bigger story — would-be officeholders using election law to win the race before a single vote is cast — that is little short of an assault on the democratic process.
Considered in that light, The News-Gazette applauds the appellate court's unanimous decision reinstating Sandefur's name to the ballot. Further, it's our hope that local officials will in the future take a more measured approach toward petition challenges that rely on tortured statutory interpretations and mind-bending technicalities to turn contested races into slam dunks for unopposed candidates.
In this case, Sandefur initially planned on running for assessor in the Democratic Party February primary election against Stebbins. She subsequently changed her mind and decided that she would instead run for assessor as an independent in the April general election.
Those are key details. Those are two separate and distinct races — a Democratic primary race and an independent general election race.
Stebbins filed an objection to Sandefur's petitions, arguing that she and her husband had, contrary to state law, impermissibly collected petitions for her candidacy as a Democrat in the primary and then as an independent in the general election. A three-member township board panel, made up of Carol Elliott, Phyllis Clark and Robert Lewis, agreed and removed Sandefur's name from the ballot. When Sandefur appealed, Associate Judge Chase Leonhard affirmed the board's decision.
The appellate court, however, ruled that the township board and Leonhard read a prohibition into the statute that does not exist.
"(The statute) does not, (Sandefur) asserts, prohibit a person from circulating a petition for a political party in a consolidated primary election and then circulating a petition for an independent candidate in a consolidated general election. In light of the plain language of section 10-4 of the election code, and public policy related to access to ballots, we agree," Justice Robert Steigmann wrote in an eight-page opinion.
In a more succinct concurring opinion — just three paragraphs — Justice Carol Pope described the legal issue as "simple" and noted that Sandefur had withdrawn her petitions for the primary race before embarking on her candidacy as an independent in the general election.
This is the second time in the past five years that Sandefur's lawyer, Andrew Bequette, has successfully appealed a ballot-access issue to the appellate court.
In a previous case, Bequette's client, Democrat Brendan McGinty of Urbana, was thrown off the ballot because the pages on his petitions were inaccurately numbered. The appellate court properly ruled that McGinty should not have been removed because his petitions were in substantial compliance with the law. In this case, the appellate court ruled the electoral board and Leonhard took a too-expansive view of statutory prohibitions.
"The courts seem to be adopting the mind-set that they favor ballot access," said Bequette.
If so, that's good. It's far better for the voters to decide who is elected to what rather than picayunish petition challengers whose real goal is to disenfranchise the voters by denying them a choice.