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updated: 3/29/2013 5:22 AM

Roselle trustee makes ballot challenges an art

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  • Roselle Trustee Kory Atkinson has held office-seekers to exacting standards for filing their paperwork. He's mounted legal challenges against at least 10 candidates, including eight who weren't running against him.

      Roselle Trustee Kory Atkinson has held office-seekers to exacting standards for filing their paperwork. He's mounted legal challenges against at least 10 candidates, including eight who weren't running against him.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer


Kory Atkinson has developed something of a reputation for himself since entering public office: He's the guy who tries to get other candidates kicked off the ballot.

Since 2009, the Roselle trustee and onetime College of DuPage trustee has personally objected to the candidacies of at least 10 office seekers -- including eight who weren't running against him.

Critics say his zeal costs taxpayers and frightens off political newcomers. But Atkinson -- an election-law attorney and school district operations manager -- insists he's only looking out for democracy.

"There's a tendency to think it's just a lawyer doing some slick tricks, but the rules that apply to elections are not ones that I've created," he said. "The people of the state of Illinois decided them through their elected officials."

Apparently, no filing infraction is too minor for Atkinson, who's tried to off candidates for everything from misidentifying their chosen office to failing to number the pages on their nominating forms. Two elections in a row, he had a College of DuPage candidate booted from the ballot -- once for failing to circle the term he wanted and, later, for failing to staple or otherwise bind together his paperwork.

Challenging candidacies is not uncommon in local elections. But such efforts are almost always directed by one ballot rival against another. Scot Schraufnagel, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University, said in his 30 years of studying politics, he could not recall of anyone on a crusade similar to Atkinson's.

Schraufnagel questioned the value of the effort. "That doesn't make for better elections -- limiting choice," he said.

In his latest battle, Atkinson is taking on two Roselle mayoral candidates and two opponents for village board, citing errors in their nominating papers. The objections were shot down by the local electoral board, so Atkinson asked a DuPage County judge to review the case. When that failed, he appealed to the 2nd District Appellate Court in Elgin, where the matter is pending with the April 9 election less than two weeks away.

"It's disappointing and frustrating he feels the need to drag this out," said challenged Roselle mayoral candidate James Banks, who noted the cash-strapped community has already spent more than $21,000 in related court costs and legal fees. "It's certainly hurting the village, and I don't know what he hopes to gain."

Atkinson, 35, said he's been enamored with elections and government as long as he can remember. He recalled writing to President Ronald Reagan about the space shuttle Challenger disaster and participating in student government while growing up in rural Colorado. By the time he graduated from law school in 2004, he was eager to join a prominent Chicago firm where he represented public schools in tax litigation and got his first formal taste of election law.

"It's something I've always had a passion for," said Atkinson, who opened his own practice in 2008. "In civil society, probably the most sacred thing we do is engage in elections and set policy. It's the way we figure out what we're going to do as a people."

And Atkinson says he has his procedure for finding objection material down to a T.

For example, he insists on reviewing original nominating papers. With this strategy, he's exposed candidates who shirked notarization requirements or made other fatal filing errors. He also checks page numbers and deadline requirements, and counts signatures to make sure the numbers add up.

"It's not terribly scientific, but you start developing a sense," he said. "White Out is a big tip something's not quite right."

Atkinson admits he's a stickler for details but makes no apologies. He points out that without nominating papers stapled, a candidate could add material after the fact. And if candidates can't follow signature guidelines, or number pages correctly, Atkinson believes they shouldn't be running for public office in the first place.

NIU's Schraufnagel, though, suggests a ballot challenger's motives should be evaluated, too.

"If the initiative to remove people from the ballots has any kind of partisan bias to it, where certain people are scrutinized more than others, that's particularly troubling," he said. "If, on the other hand, this appears to be purely random and someone who is strictly enforcing some bureaucratic procedure and doesn't have any kind of political agenda, it seems a shame but it's not as troubling."

Criticism, Atkinson said, is "something I expect, but it doesn't change my sense that the playing field should be even and everybody should be playing by the same rules -- particularly because of how important elections are."

"I've seen cases where candidates remove themselves after it became apparent there were serious deficiencies in their petitions," he said. "And having that check out there -- knowing somebody is going to take a look -- has an important value and encourages people to follow the proper procedures."

It also encourages rookies to give up, said Robert Roddy, who's among the village board opponents challenged by Atkinson.

Roddy's mistake was filing his statement of economic interest in Cook County rather than DuPage. Roselle falls into both counties, and while Roddy lives in Cook, he wasn't supposed to file there. So far, the Roselle electoral board and a DuPage judge haven't taken umbrage with it -- but Atkinson is pressing the matter through to appeal.

"People shouldn't have to go through this type of scrutiny to run for office," said Roddy, who has a construction background and is making his first try for election. "Mr. Atkinson makes things as miserable and uncomfortable as he possibly can for people running for office. I really don't think he has the purest of intents here -- that he's for justice and the rights of the people. He's really kind of using the law to manipulate the candidacy so there's a better chance of him getting elected."

Atkinson is not unlike other election attorneys in that he works for clients filing or fending off objections when he isn't pursuing his own. And those he's represented say his keen eye for detail shouldn't be underestimated or misunderstood.

"We need good people to keep fighting for what's right, and I think Kory is one of the people who has a conviction to bear the truth," Janet Hughes of Lemont said.

Hughes hired Atkinson when her candidacy for a school board was challenged because she didn't bind together her nominating papers. In a twist, Atkinson was objecting to a College of DuPage candidate for the exact same reason while defending Hughes, who lost her place on the ballot but still considers him a "champion" for clean elections.

"You've got to look at it both ways," said Mark Nowak, an Addison Township trustee who credits Atkinson for surviving an objection in a College of DuPage race. "In some cases, he's the bad guy because he wants to object to somebody to get them off the ballot. In the other case, he's the guy who defends you."

• Daily Herald staff writer Tara García Mathewson contributed to this report.

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