MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA) — Two independent candidates vying for an open judicial seat in Piatt County are ineligible to appear on the November ballot after casting votes as Republicans in the March primary, the Illinois State Board of Elections confirmed.
Attorneys Steve Thomas and Suzanne Jennings Wells both declared themselves independents running for the Sixth Judicial Circuit opening against State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades, who will be on the November ballot as the Republican option.
But voting records obtained by WCIA show that both Thomas and Wells cast their votes in the March 17 primary as Republicans which, according to state election law, means neither of them are eligible to appear on the November ballot. One candidate has since dropped out, and the other remained silent.
Asked by a reporter about the conflict earlier Wednesday, Thomas described the law as unfair before abruptly deciding to drop his November bid for the bench.
“It appears to me this provision is hidden, perhaps intentionally, by a legislature that is made up almost entirely of Republicans and Democrats, to inhibit independent candidates from running for office in the general election,” Thomas said. “It is certainly unfair and appears to serve no useful purpose other than to keep independent candidates off the ballot. …If I had known of this provision I would not have voted in the primary, because I had already announced my intention to run as an independent for Circuit Judge in the fall election.”
Wells declined to respond to multiple attempts for comment or clarification as to whether she had known about the law prior to voting Republican in March; as late as April 25, Wells had, on her campaign Facebook page, said her place on the November ballot was “assured” following an unrelated federal court ruling that loosened petition signature requirements for third-party candidates in the wake of COVID-19.
Legislation enacted in March 2012 established an amendment to state Election Code barring any person “who voted the ballot of an established political party” from “fil(ing) a statement of candidacy…as an independent candidate for a partisan office to be filled at the general election immediately following the general primary for which the person…voted the ballot.”
Illinois State Board of Elections spokesperson Matt Dietrich said it more simply in an email to WCIA: “A person who has voted in a partisan primary can’t run as an independent candidate.”
Thomas said he doesn’t plan to challenge the amendment — which has happened once in 2016.
Back then, a Clinton County judge ruled the amendment unconstitutional after a sitting Effingham county board member, Mike DePoister, switched from seeking reelection as a Republican to an independent and then cast a Republican vote in the primary election that year.
A formal objection to DePoister’s party-switching was raised with the Effingham Electoral Board; the board then ruled that his candidacy was in violation of the 2012-era amendment.
After DePoister challenged the matter in circuit court, Judge William Becker ordered DePoister placed back on the ballot as an independent, calling the law an infringement “upon the basic constitutional protections afforded to citizens by the First and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution.”
The county-level electoral board and other parties involved in the court matter declined to appeal Becker’s ruling. Had an appeal been made, it would have headed to the Illinois Supreme Court since a rule there says appeals from circuit court will be “taken directly to the Supreme Court” if a state statute has been determined invalid, DePoister’s lawyer, Chris Koester said.
Since that didn’t happen, the statute is still valid, and the role of the State Board of Elections is to enforce the statute as long as it stands.
What that process looks like, Dietrich said, is “any voter in the district in which the candidate is running” filing “an objection to the nomination on the grounds that the candidate had voted in a partisan primary and thus was ineligible to appear on the ballot as an independent candidate.”
While ineligible to appear on the ballot, both could still be written-in by voters come November.