Take Charge Chicago battles for mayoral term limits referendum on November ballot
September 7, 2018

After gathering more than 86,000 signatures supporting a ballot question calling for a two-term limit for Chicago’s mayor, former Governor Pat Quinn and Take Charge Chicago are ready for battle as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s operatives work to block the referendum from the ballot.

On Aug. 6, Take Charge Chicago forces turned in their petition with 86,481 signatures, well above the required 52,519 names, yet they already are facing backlash from the mayor’s office, which is challenging 41,964 of the signatures. Quinn said he is combing through these contested signatures, arguing for enough to be validated to reach the required number.

Disputing signatures is one of two ways the mayor can keep this referendum off the ballot, explained Dick Simpson, former alderman and professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Another tactic is arguing in court that the ballot already contains three questions and therefore has no room for Quinn’s initiative, Simpson added.

“They will try both of these tactics,” Simpson said. “The mayor does not want this question—and certainly not as a binding referendum, which is what Quinn is arguing for. This is standard operating procedure for the machine or for powerful politicians like Emanuel to challenge opponents’ petitions.”

With the signatures attack fully underway, Quinn said opponents are disputing many signatures based on penmanship, if signatures are printed instead of written in cursive, and if signers have moved within the last two years. After 26 months of gathering signatures, through winter months and as busy commuters ran to work, Quinn said not everyone had time to write with “lavish” handwriting. Also, Quinn said referendum foes primarily are contesting signatures of black and Latino petition signers.

“What’s especially wrong is that the focus of the attack is on those who live on the West and South Sides of Chicago,” Quinn said. “Basically, minority voters—black and Latino who signed our petition—they were challenged more than anyone based on penmanship or on voter registration. It’s really very shameful that the mayor is focusing his attack on minority petition signers and circulators, and we are fighting back with all our might to protect our signatures from these unfair attacks.”

Such attacks are not new. Christopher Lentino, director of outreach at the Illinois Policy Institute, said it is a “tradition” for incumbents to challenge signatures to keep initiatives off the ballot. Lentino said the typical “rule of thumb” recommends gathering double the number of signatures needed to avoid falling short once opponents dispute individual signatures.

“With former Gov. Quinn’s initiative, what you’re seeing is a hallmark of Chicago politics: block substantive issues from appearing on the ballot, protect elected officials, and crowd the ballot with ‘feel good’ referendums meant to increase voter turnout,” Lentino said.

According to Quinn, a poll of Chicago voters showed 75% want to vote on term limits for Chicago’s mayor. With high public support, if the question appears on the ballot and goes into effect, Emanuel’s reign would end, as he already is in his second term.

As Take Charge Chicago continues to fight, its members must work to verify thousands of disputed signatures. Simpson said Take Charge Chicago must get affidavits from voters whose penmanship is in question, requiring the group to track down thousands of people across the city and authorize their signatures.

“We have to defend until the question is certified on the ballot,” Quinn said. “We have volunteers making sure people who signed our petition don’t have their franchise taken away by the mayor and his efforts. Voters of Chicago have a different idea [than the mayor], and it’s important to make sure this referendum is on the ballot so the people can speak.”

To learn more about this petition, visit TakeChargeChicago.org. To volunteer and help validate signatures, visit the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago at 96 W. Washington St.

—Madeline Makoul