CHICAGO — — A measure calling for lawmaker term limits is all but ready for the November ballot, elections officials decided Tuesday as they also reluctantly agreed to give backers of an initiative changing how Illinois draws political boundaries more time to validate signatures.
Both could appear on one of Illinois' heftiest ballots in state history with up to seven possible initiatives before voters — four constitutional amendments and three poll-style questions — along with one of the most competitive governor's races nationwide. However, the fate of the map and term limits measures face other hurdles, with a lawsuit expected to unfold this week and allegations that the process has been laden with politics.
The Illinois State Board of Elections ruled that the "Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits," led by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, had enough valid signatures based off a sample size, though there's still time to file objections. The board was less certain about efforts by the "Yes for Independent Maps" group, saying the signature gathering was "a mess" and didn't meet deadlines.
"They didn't start soon enough. When they did get started, they didn't really work hard enough," board chairman Jesse Smart, who voted in favor of allowing more time, told reporters. "Yet they keep running back here wanting more days, more time, more time. We've been very fair with them, but they've not portrayed we've been fair to them."
The map group's members have said the process smells of politics in a Democratic-leaning state where some top members of the party oppose the plans to impose two terms on legislators and shift the mapmaking process from lawmakers to an independent commission. Board members dismissed those allegations.
The claim didn't crop up during the meeting, which bordered on rowdy at times with intense questioning from the board and cheers from roughly 100 supporters watching. An attorney for the map group said the citizen-driven effort was new to the rules and election officials rushed the process and didn't communicate clearly.
"We did not delay in our work," said attorney Michael Dorf.
The group turned in more than 500,000 signatures last month, but election officials found more than half were invalid in a sample. That left the group scrambling to verify names of registered voters before a hearing officer's deadline earlier this month. However, backers said Board of Elections officials pushed up a hearing officer's deadline while the group says it was collecting evidence on 4,000 signatures from local election authorities. Dorf said they needed more time because they had to rely on Freedom of Information requests over subpoenas.
Board members defended their decision to keep hard deadlines, saying it was their jurisdiction to do so. The process heads back to a hearing officer who'll examine signatures. Election officials certify ballots in August.
The board's decision came a day ahead of oral arguments in a court case challenging the initiatives. Some overlap was evident.
Attorney Michael Kasper argued Tuesday against giving the map group more time. The Chicago-based elections attorney has represented numerous top Democrats and is also arguing against the measure in court.
"It's fundamentally unfair to everyone else," he said during the meeting. "This is just a delay tactic."
A voter initiative can only change the "structure" and "procedure" of the Legislature. The lawsuit contends that the measures don't meet these requirements, changes rules for seeking office and affects the governor's powers. The Illinois Supreme Court has previously held a narrow definition for changing the constitution through a voter initiative.
The term limits issue has seeped into the governor's race, with Rauner trying to unseat Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who backs term limits but doesn't agree with Rauner's proposal because it would also increase the size of the Illinois House. In 1980, Quinn, then an activist, successfully led the only voter initiative to make it on the ballot. It cut the size of the House and how residents elect legislators.
Rauner's campaign called the term limit vote "an important step forward for the people of Illinois who clearly want the opportunity to vote on term limits and deserve to get that chance."
Legislator-driven ballot questions that could surface in November — and are led by Democrats — include advisory questions on a millionaires' tax, birth control and the minimum wage. Two other plans to amend the state constitution deal with voters' rights and crime victims' rights.