State elections board dismisses illegal campaign coordination complaint, declines to clarify law

CHICAGO – State elections officials on Tuesday indicated they were unlikely to step in to clarify what constitutes illegal campaign coordination after voting to dismiss a complaint alleging such coordination in the 2022 campaign for governor.

At their monthly meeting in Chicago, Illinois State Board of Elections members voted 7-1 to adopt a hearing officer’s recommendation to dismiss a complaint filed by a Democratic party official in the waning days of the 2022 election cycle. The complaint alleged conservative radio host and political operative Dan Proft illegally coordinated with former Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey during his 2022 campaign for governor.

The hearing officer’s recommendation, which was made public last week ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, agreed with Proft and Bailey’s contention that state law was not specific enough to find a violation had occurred. He found there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that ads Proft produced during Bailey’s general election challenge to Gov. JB Pritzker amounted to illegal coordination.

However, the hearing officer recommended the General Assembly update existing law or the Board of Elections adopt rules to clarify what is and isn’t allowed by independent expenditure committees like the one Proft was operating, dubbed the People Who Play by the Rules PAC.

Other than allowing attorneys for Proft, Bailey and the Democratic Party of Illinois’ executive director to recap the case, board members didn’t ask any questions about the dispute. That disappointed Ed Mullen, a Democratic election law attorney who often advises candidates and represents them in front of the board.

During the board’s public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting, Mullen said that just the day before, a client asked him what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to interacting with independent expenditure committees.

“I just couldn't answer that question,” he said. “And I just encourage you to look further into that and give us some more guidance.”

But board co-chair Laura Kent Donahue, a former GOP state senator who spent 22 years in the legislature, told Mullen the board would likely not intervene, and would leave it to the General Assembly.

“Sometimes it's a little dicey when you get to spelling it out,” she said. “Because then you might leave something out gets – it's tricky. So I understand. We hear you, but it's gotta come from another source and not necessarily from us.”

'Slated’ candidates still in limbo

Republican candidates for the General Assembly who didn’t run in the March primary election are still a few weeks away from finding out whether they’ll be allowed on the November ballot.

Democrats who control the legislature hastily passed a measure last month banning post-primary “slating,” a practice long used by both parties in which local party officials appoint a candidate to run in a general election after sitting out the primary. Party leaders will often slate candidates to run in elections they deem winnable after seeing how the primary shakes out.

But earlier this month, a Springfield-based judge blocked the Board of Elections from enforcing the law during this election cycle against 14 candidates who signed onto a suit challenging the law, ruling it’s unfair to change the rules midstream. House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, appealed that ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court last week.

Meanwhile, the Board of Elections continued accepting nominating petitions from slated candidates, with 15 Republicans filing to run for legislative races by the June 3 deadline. Nearly all of those candidates are facing challenges to their candidate paperwork – a common step in running for office in Illinois in which opponents and their party allies aim to disqualify nominating petitions by searching for possible forged signatures or other technical errors.

Decisions in those cases will likely come at the board’s July 9 meeting; a handful of slated Republican candidates showed up to meet with hearing officers 22 floors below the conference room where Board of Elections members in Chicago participated in Tuesday’s hearing.

That included Jay Keeven of Edwardsville, the slated challenger to Democratic state Rep. Katie Stuart, also of Edwardsville. Keeven was the only candidate to turn his nominating petitions before Pritzker signed the slating bill into law.

But Keeven was not a party to the lawsuit, and Judge Gail Noll’s ruling earlier this month specifically limited her injunction to the 14 candidates who sued over the law. The decision on Keeven’s petition challenges is expected to address that issue.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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