Staples and politics in Madison County: Ballot access survivor will be tested in primary

By Ann Maher | Mar 16, 2018

Election laws sometimes can produce unfair results even when all that a civic minded citizen wants to do is fulfill a noble purpose - public service. A lawyer familiar with ballot access case law sees it this way: "They are the rules that we all live with, and the rules are the rules."

Election laws sometimes produce unfair results even when all that a civic minded citizen wants to do is fulfill a noble purpose - public service. A lawyer familiar with ballot access case law sees it this way: "They are the rules that we all live with, and the rules are the rules."

For Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton, a Republican whose candidacy for state Senate was derailed because he signed a Democratic candidate's petitions, his mistake was fatal. After protracted legal battles that ended with an appellate court ruling that declared his nomination papers to be invalid, the Illinois Supreme Court earlier this week denied his petition for leave to appeal the lower court ruling. Since the controversy was not resolved by the time ballots were printed, his name will appear to voters in the March 20 primary election.

For Madison County Board member Liz Dalton of Collinsville, a Democrat who seeks reelection to a county board seat she has held since 2012, a paperwork mistake she made in December, however, did not cost her a spot on the ballot.

Video showing Dalton turning in her paperwork, which county officials had sought to suppress, was recently obtained by the Record. It appears to show Dalton removing a clip from her nomination paperwork, not a staple, before it was handed over to be notarized at the County Clerk's office. After the papers were notarized and handed back to the clerk the video appears to show they were not stapled, a fact that Dalton admitted to on the record.

Arguments over whether Dalton could remain on the ballot were heard Dec. 15 before a Madison County Electoral Board that included County Clerk Debra Ming Mendoza, Circuit Clerk Mark von Nida and assistant state's attorney John McGuire, all Democrats. According to a transcript of the hearing, when asked if her paperwork was stapled at the time the notarized documents were handed over, she said, "No, they were not."

Dalton, 72, stated that when she came to the Clerk's office they were "stapled," but had to be unbound in order to be notarized.

The issue of whether the petition paperwork - which included signatures of 24 voters on two pages - was stapled or "neatly bound," was central to the hearing. 

Objector Harold L. Wathan, 60, of Collinsville argued that election law states that papers must be neatly bound.

Wathan, a Republican running for precinct committeemen in next week's election, maintained that after observing a copy of her petition paperwork it appeared certain that it had not been stapled. At the hearing, he repeatedly stated that video surveillance of the Clerk's office would back up his position.

He had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the video but had been denied access by the Madison County Sheriff's office. After his FOIA was denied, Wathan asked the State Attorney General for an opinion, which came back earlier this month in his favor.

Dalton and Ming Mendoza have been contacted for comment, but had not returned phone calls by the time this article was published.

At the December hearing, McGuire acknowledged that if the candidate's paperwork was not stapled or neatly bound when turned in, the board would have to find in favor of Wathan.

"I think the key issue is whether or not the pages were stapled when they were filed, because if they weren't, my understanding is that it's fatal, but if they were stapled, then there's no remaining objection," he said.

Von Nida questioned Wathan about his interests in opposing Dalton's candidacy, and whether it went beyond just wanting to see election code enforced because Dalton's primary opponent Alexis Hutt lives at the same address as Wathan, 203 West Main St. in Collinsville.

Wathan said, "My interests are that it be fair, that we all follow the rules, whatever it may be."

In a phone interview Thursday, Wathan said his address is a combination of commercial and residential and that he does not live with Hutt. He also said that they are not romantically involved.

Von Nida said that he found it" kind of ridiculous, the idea, that because of a missing staple, that a candidate would not be on the ballot."

"The question is whether or not she submitted a complete package at the time when she brought it in," von Nida said. "It was bound. It was unbound when she completed it, and then she handed it back to the clerk. That's what the testimony is. Now the question is whether or not we're going to sustain the objection based on that, that the three pages that the clerk received were defective enough to keep her off the ballot. That's the question."

He said he saw "no reason" why the board should not overrule Wathan's objection.

In a unanimous vote, the electoral board adopted von Nida's motion to overrule Wathan's objection. A month later in January, the matter went before Circuit Judge Dave Dugan who also ruled in favor of Dalton.

Edwardsville attorney James Craney, who represented Wathan at the electoral board hearing said, "I've talked to judges in this courthouse, and everybody acknowledges that it seems as though the statutes in this arena, nominated papers and objections to them, are strictly construed, and often, there are what seems like unfair results, but they are the rules that we all live with, and the rules are the rules."

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