What you need to know to run for local office in 2019

If you're mulling running for local office in the April 2 election, you still have time to decide — but not much.

Most suburbs — as well as school boards, library boards, fire district boards and park boards — require nominating papers to be filed from Dec. 10 to Dec. 17. A few towns like Elgin, Aurora and Naperville had early filing periods.

Local officeholders largely determine how much we pay in taxes, how our children are educated and how extensive our fire and police protection is, but there often are few candidates.

Just 31 percent of local races were contested in 2017 in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties, down from 45 percent in 2009. At the same time, the number of races without enough candidates to fill the vacancies more than doubled.

Here's how to throw your hat into the ring.

The signatures

Attorney Jeff Meyer, who lives in Elgin, said many municipal and county clerk offices put together packets for candidates. The ultimate resource is the state board of elections' 2019 candidate's guide.

Petition forms vary by office and must specify the exact office and details like whether it's a 2-year or 4-year seat, Meyer said. “This is where people trip up. You don't want to jeopardize a candidacy before it even started.”

Only registered voters in the district can sign petitions. In partisan elections, voters can't sign for candidates representing more than one party. Most local elections are nonpartisan, however.

The number of signatures required to get on the ballot varies by race, the state board of elections says. For example, for library districts it's at least 2 percent of the votes cast in the last election for library trustees, or 50, whichever is less. For nonpartisan village board positions it's at least 1 percent, and for nonpartisan city council positions it's a minimum of 5 percent of votes cast in the last election for those offices.

Candidates must file a statement of candidacy and a receipt showing they filed a statement of economic interest with the appropriate office (most will be with the county clerk's office), Meyer said. The latter can be done online, but Meyer recommended first-time candidates do it in person. They can also sign a voluntary oath to the state constitution, he said.

The petitions must be properly bound — staples are OK, as are two-hole punches held together by a prong, he said.

“Where people get into trouble is when they use nothing or paper clips,” he said. “But there is conflicting authority on this. Some boards have said that's sufficient, some have said it's not.”

Candidates should be ready for people to file objections to their nominating papers that dispute, for example, the validity of signatures and proper binding.

If there are lots of “bad” signatures, an objection can be filed alleging the person who circulated those specific petitions is engaging in a pattern of fraud, which means all signatures collected by that person could be invalidated, Meyer said.

It's a good idea to hire an attorney to review petitions, Meyer said. The state board of elections also recommends that.

The money

Money is the biggest obstacle to running for office, said Audra Wilson, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois. She estimated a strong campaign for a contested suburban city council or village board position could require close to $30,000. Direct mailers are the most significant cost, followed by hiring a campaign staff, she said.

“I think people figure out, ‘I know I am capable, I know I have the ability, but how do I raise that money?'” she said. “It can be very daunting. ... You want to start lining up your potential basis of support as people are getting to know you and you start collecting contributions.”

Fundraising via crowdfunding platforms is increasingly common, she said. They can be especially helpful for first-time candidates who don't have personal resources to pour into campaigns, she said.

Lauren Underwood, a Naperville Democrat who in November unseated a four-term Republican incumbent in the 14th Congressional District, said Crowdpac allowed her to gauge her ability to raise resources for a competitive campaign.

“The platform facilitated a connection based on shared values,” she said.

Crowdpac is open to all candidates in nonpartisan elections but no longer works with Republican candidates.

Irene Shin, Crowdpac's political director, said 60 to 70 percent of candidates who use the platform are running for local office.

The average contribution is $47, with nearly 80 percent of donations under $50 and 96 percent under $200, she said.

The service is free for candidates but there is a 3.75 percent processing fee added to donations, which include information for campaign finance regulations.

No matter the challenges, being elected to local office is a great way to truly make a difference, Wilson said.

“The lower levels of government are the ones that have the most direct impact on cities,” she said. “It's the ones were you can really see the fruit of your labor.”

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