Tired of the status quo, hundreds of residents across the region rose up this winter to challenge those running their towns — not suspecting the system was stacked against them.
They knocked on doors. They persuaded neighbors to sign petitions. They filed their paperwork to get a spot on the ballot.
Then, one after another, scores of candidates were struck from April's ballot by panels of local officeholders, often allies of the very people the candidates were trying to unseat.
The panels are supposed to preserve the integrity of an election. But week after week, in suburb after suburb, incumbents used them to slay opponents — and limit voter choice — usually over mundane mistakes: a missing word here, too many words there, a paper clip instead of a staple.
Kicking opponents off the ballot — before voters get a say — is a long-standing, if ethically questionable, tactic in Illinois politics. Battles over high-profile candidates sometimes make headlines.
But a Tribune investigation found the practice pervading the levels of government closest to residents, from village halls to school boards. Ultimately, tens of thousands of voters were left with fewer choices on next month's ballot in communities rich and poor, from far north Antioch to far southwest Plainfield.
Even those who survived the legal minefield ended up sapped of time and cash needed to reach voters with their pitch for change.
"This system is inherently unfair," said Richard Means, an election law attorney handling ballot disputes for 40 years. "The people who write the laws and their allies benefit from the system."
For its investigation, the Tribune focused on races that critics say are the most troubling: suburban candidates running for city and village offices. Reporters canvassed every suburb in the Chicago region, reviewed scores of objections filed against candidates and interviewed dozens of those involved in the system. The newspaper found:
Widespread abuse. At least 200 candidates faced objections this year, with only a small fraction alleging serious matters, such as criminal histories, residency issues or outright fraud. Ultimately panels kicked 76 candidates off the ballot across three dozen suburbs.
Rampant bias. Of those knocked off, most fell at the hands of panels stacked with members who had a political stake in their own decisions. Conflicts also went beyond simple politics: Even relatives ruled on their own family members' cases.
Wild inconsistencies. The rules are not evenly applied, with similar infractions leading some panels to remove candidates, but not other panels.
Costly tabs. The challenges cost taxpayers in some towns tens of thousands of dollars each election cycle, many times in suburbs that can least afford it.
The system has its defenders, who argue the complex law and bare-knuckle legal battles weed out those too weak or incompetent to govern. Among them is veteran Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch, who got to vote this year to kick two critics off the ballot.
"It is a privilege to run for office, not a right," Welch said. "There are rules in government that we all have to follow."
But others say the system is fundamentally unfair. They include numerous attorneys specializing in the field, incumbents and even those who for years have used the system to their advantage.
"It's just a bad system altogether," said political operative David Donahue, a Cicero candidate this year. "And it should be scrapped."
Left in the cross hairs are political newcomers such as Allen Arneson, of Countryside.
The 62-year-old retired corporate executive unwittingly walked into an election system geared against those like him.
Over the last few years, Arneson said he'd grown increasingly fed up with his suburb's rising debt and taxes.
At the last election, the town elected a new mayor in an upset to the local ruling party. Arneson began attending meetings with the new mayor and a group of like-minded neighbors. Then they decided to field candidates against the mayor's City Council opponents in this year's election.
Arneson would run for one of two aldermanic posts in his ward.
In many states, running for local office in a midsize suburb would require a simple filing fee, and maybe a dozen or two signatures on a petition. But not Illinois.
Arneson and his political party were left to navigate the state's 101-page handbook on how to run for office: a labyrinth of various forms to file and signature requirements to meet.
Often scores or hundreds of signatures are needed from registered voters. They must be signed a certain way, witnessed a certain way and notarized a certain way. Then there are forms to disclose potential conflicts of interest and swear a loyalty oath.
A single mistake on any form creates an opportunity for an opponent to file a challenge.
Defenders say the system helps keep out clearly undeserving candidates, including convicted felons, those who forge petition signatures or those who don't live in town.
But most challenges allege paperwork mistakes.
And that was the kind of challenge quickly lodged against Arneson — throwing his candidacy in doubt before it even got started.
Political foes on panel
As Arneson attended his first hearing on the issue at City Hall, he was dismayed by the familiar faces who would decide his fate.
The local panel had three members. It included the mayor — the head of Arneson's party — and the city clerk and an alderman, members of the opposing party.
And the attorney arguing to kick Arneson off the ballot also had ties to Arneson's opponents. Weeks before, the opponents' party paid her thousands of dollars for legal work.
So, Arneson's case would be decided by a panel dominated by political opponents who were ruling on an argument made by their own party's attorney.
The outcome: Arneson's opponents voted to kick him off the ballot.
"I didn't dream that these kinds of shenanigans went on at a local level," Arneson said. "I was shocked."
Arneson's fate can be traced to the horse-and-buggy era.
To decide ballot challenges, an 1891 law set up panels to include a local mayor, local clerk and an alderman. A candidate can't directly rule on his or her race, but little stops panelists from ruling on their friends or foes.
This year, the Tribune found that about 100 candidates faced panels with members who had a political stake in their own rulings.
And those panels had plenty of legal weapons to advance their political interests.
Veteran attorneys involved in the process say the law is so murky that local panels are given wide berth to be unforgiving toward even the most innocent of mistakes. And, to critics, that has created a cycle of dysfunction.
Over the decades, a plethora of nitpicky decisions has created a smorgasbord of legal opinions that insiders can use to justify their desired outcome.
Even well-meaning panel members, with town attorneys at their disposal, can struggle to sift through nuanced legal arguments over a confusing law interpreted in different ways.
"We are amateurs," said longtime Maywood Village Clerk Gary Woll, who has sat on such panels for years. "We get people on these boards who don't know even the rules."
So panels frequently make polar-opposite decisions on the same set of facts, such as:
Years-old parking tickets. Maywood kept a candidate on. Dolton kicked one off.
Only noting "trustee" on a petition, instead of "village trustee." Winfield kept two candidates on; Wadsworth and Antioch kicked candidates off.
A notary who doesn't attest to "personally" knowing a candidate. Northbrook and Plainfield kept candidates on; Calumet City kicked candidates off.
In Arneson's case, two of his forms failed to specify which of the two alderman slots he was seeking in his ward. Panels in other suburbs and some judges have considered similar mistakes too minor to kick off a candidate, but not Arneson's political rivals in Countryside.
And they cited another paperwork issue.
Arneson and an ally were supposed to file a joint petition, with each of their names on top, so signers would be endorsing the entire slate running in the ward. Instead, the pair filed separate petitions, listing the entire slate farther down the form.
The snafu was seized upon by the objector's attorney, Ellen K. Raymond, who said the law was on her side.
"Why that is a requirement? I don't know," she said. "But we have to follow the election laws."
Priced out of democracy
Some candidates muscled their way back onto the ballot by appealing to Circuit Court. Judges sometimes returned candidates to the ballot this year if the mistakes were minor and the candidates "substantially complied" with the law.
Eleven candidates in Calumet City and two in Country Club Hills were let back on the ballot by judges.
But to get that far takes cash.
Attorneys told the Tribune that a typical case before an election panel can cost candidates $2,500 or more. To fight a decision in court could easily double the cost.
The price was too much for Arneson.
He and his party members had already shelled out $1,200 to fight the challenge. It would have cost at least $2,500 more to take it to court.
"We just don't have the resources," Arneson said.
Candidates are not the only ones paying. The system is costing taxpayers too.
Most panels, at a minimum, use tax dollars to pay for their own attorneys to offer advice and for court reporters to note what everyone said at the hearings. The bills grow exponentially if panel members recuse themselves and the court appoints attorneys to hear the cases instead.
In Roselle, the tab for four challenges dragged through court cost at least $25,000. Broadview officials said that more than a dozen challenges there — ones that required $200-an-hour, court-appointed panel members — will cost at least $60,000. And Cicero officials said the tab for more than a dozen challenges there topped $150,000.
And even taxpayers in the most sedate suburbs must help foot their counties' costs to reprint ballots caused by dragged-out challenges.
Other major metro areas don't have these problems.
The Tribune studied local election systems in the suburbs of the nation's other largest metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia. None has Illinois' combination of difficulty getting on the suburban ballot and ease in getting kicked off.
Even other candidates in Illinois have a different and, some argue, more effective system.
Candidates for state office — and in Chicago — have challenges overseen by panels of appointees split by party. Veteran election attorney Burt Odelson suggested a similar, centralized system to hear local challenges.
Candidates for suburban park, fire and library district posts have challenges overheard by a centralized county panel — not local incumbents. Cook County's top election official has pushed for all local challenges to be heard by that county panel, but the effort has long been stalled in Springfield amid arguments that local control is best.
The panels "are there to serve, usually, the incumbents. They are there to serve those with power," said Cook County Clerk David Orr. "That's fundamentally why we haven't been able to change the law."
Orr's push had gotten backlash in the past from other counties' election officials leery of the increased workload amid tight budgets. But one, Lake County Clerk Willard Helander, said she is now more open to such a move.
"This process is getting so hardball that good people don't want to try" to run for office, she said. "It bothers me."
For now, suburban voters will likely see thinner ballots and more races where the only choices are for the incumbents, even if people filed to run against them.
Such as in Arneson's ward in Countryside, where Ald. Sean McDermott is the only name on the ballot for the spot.
Arneson is now pursuing the common path of last resort for those whose names were kicked off ballots: as a write-in candidate. It means voters — instead of being able to glance at his name and check off the box — will have to remember to write his name in a blank space.
Critics say it's a huge handicap that doesn't leave those candidates a fair shot at votes — although Arneson said he now thinks Illinois' system may have never given him a fair shot to begin with.
"This certainly isn't … what the Founding Fathers had in mind for the democratic process," he said.