FIGHTING TO STAY ON BALLOT: Zerlina Smith, left, with former Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis. Smith's objections were challenged during her attempt to run for 29th Ward alderman in 2019. | Photo provided

In order to run for alderman in Chicago, it’s not enough to be a registered voter who lives in a ward and hasn’t been convicted of a felony. It’s not enough to collect the required 473 signatures from the registered voters who live in a ward. Often, candidates have to prove that at least 473 signatures they obtain are valid. 

That process happens during objection hearings typically held inside of Cook County’s administration building at 69 W. Washington. Austin Weekly News sat in on a hearing held Dec. 17 to examine an objection filed against 29th Ward aldermanic candidate Zerlina Smith’s petitions. 

Smith is one of four candidates running for 29th Ward alderman whose petition sheets were challenged. They include incumbent Chris Taliaferro, Dwayne Truss and Gayinga Washington. 

Most of the objections are fairly run-of-the-mill, with objectors alleging that candidates’ nominating petitions weren’t properly filled out and/or weren’t properly notarized, that some of the people signing the petitions weren’t eligible to sign and that some signatures appeared on more than one petition (by law, a voter can only sign one nominating petition per race). 

Smith faced one of the more unusual objections, with objector Bruce Washington arguing that a photo posted on her campaign Twitter account suggests that petitions weren’t properly signed and notarized. 

During Smith’s hearing, several tables were set up, with one hearing officer per table. Due to the sheer volume of cases, there are usually at least two objections being heard at any given time.

Members of the public are allowed to sit in on the meetings, but with one caveat. The table is reserved for hearing officers, their staff, the candidates, the objectors and their attorneys. Members of the public have to pull up a chair and sit behind them. 

In addition to this reporter, Truss hung around for about 15 minutes. As he told Austin Weekly News, he is a stranger to the process and with his own objection hearings scheduled three days later, he wanted to get a sense of what the process is like.  

Neither Smith nor Washington attended the hearing in person, leaving their respective attorneys, Andrew Finko and Pericles Abbasi, along to argue on their clients’ behalf. 

Ahead of the hearing, Abbasi, Washington’s attorney, said that he was also representing Taliaferro in the incumbent alderman’s objection hearing. According to the Illinois State Board of Elections records, Washington serves as the president of the 29th Ward Democratic Organization, which Taliaferro chairs in his capacity as a 29th Ward Democratic Party committeeman. Abbasi serves as its treasurer.

During the hearing, Abbasi emphasized that his client was only interested in following the process, noting that Washington didn’t challenge Truss’ nominating petitions because he didn’t see any issues with them.

But with Smith, he alleged a number of issues. During the hearing, Abbasi specifically mentioned that some petitions were apparently notarized on Nov. 28, two days after the Nov. 26 filing deadline, as well as the fact that when petitions were filed, they weren’t held together properly, and some petitions weren’t signed and filled out properly. 

Most notably, he drew attention to the photo posted on Smith’s official campaign twitter account on Oct. 17, which showed a stack of petitions collected by that point, where at least two petitions didn’t have circulator information filled in. 

Abbasi argued that this was enough to cast doubt on whether any petitions were signed in time. And if that’s the case, he argued, there was no way to know which circulator circulated which petitions. This meant that there was no way they could be properly notarized, he said.  

“It suggests that the purported circulator didn’t circulate those sheets,’ Abbasi said. 

Finko, in turn, tried to poke holes in the objector’s allegations. Most notably, he argued that Washington was making sweeping allegations without evidence.

“How has Bruce Washington come to the conclusions that all these sheets weren’t properly notarized?” he said. “How does he know that virtually all the [petition] sheets weren’t properly circulated?”

Finko emphasized that signed and notarized petitions are assumed to be valid unless proven otherwise, and he argued that Washington didn’t prove that.

Abbasi responded that while they didn’t prove the claim, the evidence they presented “gives us good fact-finding basis.”

“Every candidate has sheets that were brought in,” Finko responded. “There is no evidence that anything was improper.”

Hearing officer Linda Crane said she was skeptical about the conclusions Washington drew from the photo.

“My problem is I can’t see the bottom of [the petitions in the photo], except the first one or two,” she said.”We can picture in our mind every single campaign, where here is a stack of papers. The picture itself is not a smoking gun.”

Abbasi said he wanted to subpoena Smith, her campaign manager and all of her circulators. Crane said that she would prefer that he and Finko work out some kind of agreement where Finko gets sworn affidavits from the individuals in question. But while Smith’s attorney was open to the idea, Abbasi insisted on subpoenas.

After some more discussion, Crane agreed to hold the document examination to check Washington’s allegations of invalid signatures and improperly filled petitions. And she and the attorneys agreed to a follow-up hearing to review the results of the document examinations and the response to the subpoenas. She also requested that Washington attend the meeting as a witness, something that Abbasi said he had no problem with.

The next hearing will be held on Dec. 27 at 10:30 a.m., in the same room. For the most recent hearing schedule, visit Chicago Board of Elections’ objections page at https://chicagoelections.com/en/petition-filing-and-objection-information.html. Printouts of schedules are also posted inside the hearing rooms.

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