BLOOMINGTON — Nov. 6 will be an especially stressful election day for the Bloomington Election Commission.
In addition to its usual duties administering voting throughout the city, the BEC will face its own extinction through a referendum that survived a legal challenge this week and will appear on city ballots.
On Thursday, McLean County Circuit Judge Paul Lawrence ordered the referendum proceed after he found 1,187 petition signatures from Bloomington voters submitted by local Republicans and Libertarians were valid; 1,000 were required.
Democrats argued 603 of 1,345 total signatures should be disallowed, for 10 reasons in all, including duplicate signatures and signers who aren't registered voters — arguments Lawrence accepted — as well as signatures different from voter registration and printed names in place of signatures, which he rejected.
Lawrence also rejected petitioners' argument that Denise Williams, a BEC commissioner, should not have served as the primary objector in the case. Petitioners questioned in court whether the BEC's evidence in the case could be trusted because it would be threatened by the referendum; Williams responded that she objected in her role as a registered Bloomington voter.
"While the court rejects petitioners' efforts to disqualify her as an objector, it can consider her role as chairman of the (BEC) in evaluating any interest or bias she may have in this case," Lawrence wrote.
The seven-page order also concluded objectors could not question more signatures after filing their initial objection Aug. 13, protecting more than 100 signatures that may not have been legitimate. Petitions were filed Aug. 6, and Lawrence heard the case Monday.
Connie Beard, chair of the McLean County Republican Party, said she was "of course very pleased" by the order, and it's "indicative of the hard work and commitment so many people made to make this happen across party lines."
"We honor the judge's decision, even though we disagree, and know now, more than ever, that the only way to effect change is at the ballot box," Patrick Cortesi, communications chair for the McLean County Democratic Party, said in a statement. "We feel that this was our duty and responsibility to make sure that the correct procedures were followed and that signatures were gathered in a proper and legal manner."
Republicans and Libertarians have championed eliminating the BEC, which handles elections in the city, and consolidating local elections in the McLean County clerk's office that handles elections elsewhere in the county, including Normal, as a cost-saving measure that would reduce confusion.
"This is not a condemnation of the BEC or the people involved," said Beard. "This is an opportunity we think voters should have, to choose a system that directly answers to them."
Democrats have said they prefer a countywide election commission that may be less partisan than the clerk's office, which is run by an elected official. Libertarians have said eliminating the BEC is the first step, though state officials could allow a ballot question for creating a countywide commission.
"We look forward to now continuing our work supporting our candidates, talking about the issues facing McLean County residents and voters, and electing Democrats up and down the ballot this November," said Cortesi.
Steve Suess, chair of the McLean County Libertarian Party, said the ruling "was right out of the textbook" based on the party's many experiences with petition challenges from established parties.
He said voter education now becomes critical because the question reads, "Shall the city election law be rejected?"
"We'll need to make sure people know what they're voting on," he said.