Pro- and anti-video gaming lawyers argued at the Cook County Circuit Court on Feb. 15, debating whether a binding referendum question related to video gaming should be included on an upcoming election ballot.
Debate centered on whether Associate Judge James Carroll should appeal the ruling of the village’s electoral board. On Jan. 23, the electoral board decided to disqualify more than 200 pages of referendum petitions submitted by political action committee Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming, because six of those pages had a heading that differed from the rest.
James Watts, a Madison Street bar owner, had challenged the referendum petition. That challenge was heard by a three-person electoral board that included Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone, Clerk Vanessa Moritz and Commissioner Tom Mannix.
The electoral board, against the advice of its attorney, decided to disqualify the entire petition instead of just the six pages that bore a different heading. Village Attorney Tom Bastian said he thought throwing out only the six petition sheets with an incorrect referendum date of Nov. 8, 2016 would be the appropriate remedy. The six sheets with the different heading contained less than 100 of the nearly 3,000 valid signatures on the petitions. The other petition heading says that voters will decide on the question “at the next regular election occurring not less than 92 days after the filing of this petition.”
Attorney Ed Mullen, who represents Let Forest Park Vote, said that only the six sheets with the incorrect referendum date should be thrown out, and that the group’s petitions substantially complied with state election code 28-3, which states “the heading of each sheet shall be the same.”
Mullen cited several election cases where judges applied or found their verdict based on substantial compliance, said only voters who saw the Nov. 8, 2016 petitions would be confused over the proposed timing of the vote and argued that the use of the word “shall” in the election code does not necessarily require strict compliance.
But by having voters sign a petition for a binding referendum to be voted on at the next regular election, “and not presenting the petitions for a while, doesn’t that add to the confusion of voters?” Carroll said, adding that he felt “a little concerned” that the referendum question wasn’t added to the ballot in the next general election. Let Forest Park Vote began collecting referendum signatures in November 2016, and the next general election would have been April 2017.
But “no one’s looking at both petition sheets, and if you say that other petition sheets caused confusion on signers you’re essentially taking away the right of proponents to not specify the election,” Mullen said. “What you would be doing is creating a requirement that as soon as people circulate referendum petitions, they have to put them on the ballot at the next election.”
He said the “next regular election” petition headings very clearly let the signer know the question is intended to be featured on the next election ballot after they are submitted. Mullen also pointed out that voters can change their mind in the case of any referendum petition, and said signers can file an affidavit to remove their name from a petition.
James Nally, an attorney for a Madison Street bar owner, countered that proponents had strategic reasons for not submitting their petitions in time for the April 2017 election and that the mismatched headers exhibited a “pattern of fraud.”
“Whether it’s six pages or 60 pages, or November 2016 or a later date, there wasn’t compliance here. What’s the penalty for that? They have to be stricken in full,” Nally said, later adding that voters are “not being fully informed if [Let Forest Park Vote] takes my petition and plugs it in a year and a half later.”
“You don’t want the election process to be manipulated here,” he said.
After hearing both sides, Carroll decided to “take the matter under advisement” and will reveal his final decision at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 21 in Room 1707 of the Richard J. Daley Center, 50 W. Washington St. in Chicago. Check ForestParkReview.com for updates.
If Carroll rules in favor of the Madison Street bar owner, Jordan Kuehn, president of Let Forest Park Vote, said that the political action committee will “reevaluate” its options. If the judge rules in favor of the group, the question “Shall video gaming be prohibited in the village of Forest Park?” will be included on the November 2018 election ballot, according to the Cook County Clerk.
Let Forest Park Vote’s question is binding, which means that if a majority of Forest Parkers vote against the practice, video gaming — which is now allowed — will be outlawed in the village.
The pro-referendum group originally wanted its question on the March 20 primary ballot, but three advisory referendum questions had already been submitted for that ballot in November 2016. Only three questions are allowed on any ballot per state law.