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posted: 2/4/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Let's eliminate local electoral boards

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Today, the electoral boards in Island Lake will meet -- again -- to determine if mayoral candidate Charles Amrich and trustee candidate Tony Sciarrone will be on the April 9 ballot in this small Lake County suburb. Or not.

The hearings to determine whether their candidacies are valid have gone on for weeks. Seven potential witnesses have been subpoenaed for today alone. The electoral boards hearing the cases have been constituted and reconstituted -- including one episode in which the village's mayor, Debbie Herrmann, had to recuse herself from the board hearing Sciarrone's challenge when his lawyer said she might be called as a witness.

Island Lake is a political fever swamp. Its residents are in the unfortunate position of watching one slate of candidates fight to get on the ballot while the opposing faction controls the electoral board that is meant to decide -- impartially -- whether they are eligible.

As Dr. Phil might say, "How's that working for you, Island Lake?"

It's entirely legal. Illinois municipalities, school districts and townships are empowered to form their own electoral boards to hear challenges to candidacies. A county electoral board hears the other challenges from park and library boards.

After failing in 2005, Cook County Clerk David Orr is going to try again this year to change state law to eliminate municipal, school and township electoral boards, at least in Cook County. We implore our suburban legislators to get behind him, and other county clerks also to get on board.

Under Orr's upcoming proposal, the Cook County Electoral Board would hear all challenges. The board is made up of lawyers, familiar with election law, from the clerk's, circuit clerk's and state's attorney's offices.

Besides greater impartiality, county electoral boards are faster and their rulings are more consistent and less likely to be overturned in the courts. While most municipal electoral boards are run by honest people trying to follow election law, many of them might hear a case only every few years. And the few "bad apples" that are more interested in politics than impartiality can do a lot of damage -- they can dismiss candidates for trifling reasons, or drag out hearings so a candidate has less time to organize a campaign or to appeal his dismissal from the ballot.

Delayed rulings have caused confusion on voter ballots, where some disqualified candidates still appear and some qualified candidates don't.

Lake County Clerk Willard Helander has called the Island Lake hearings "a serious impediment to the right of the candidate to seek judicial review if removed from the ballot."

The sticking point here is taking power away from municipalities and giving it to the county, which would have to hire additional hearing officers to handle the workload. That's not a small thing. But deciding whether a candidate has correctly followed election law isn't something local officials have more insight over.

There are many decent people who want to run and to serve who are faced with hassles and delays and may even have to hire lawyers. We think Orr has a sensible solution, and we hope it gets serious consideration.

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