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As efforts intensify nationally to knock former President Donald Trump off the 2024 ballot on constitutional grounds, Illinois’ elections board says it too has received inquiries about blocking him.
But a top state election official says it would be up to Illinois’ judiciary, not the State Board of Elections, to ultimately decide whether Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection disqualifies him as a candidate for president.
Last week, six Colorado residents aided by the watchdog organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, sued in Colorado state court to block Trump from being a presidential candidate there. And on Tuesday, another group filed a lawsuit in Minnesota, making the same argument that some say is a long-shot.
They are testing a novel legal theory.
The 14th Amendment in the United States Constitution dictates that a person is ineligible to become president if they had previously sworn under oath to protect the Constitution but later “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against state or federal governments.
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An aide to second-term Illinois Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker declined comment on that question. But his spokeswoman, Jordan Abudayyeh, acknowledged “a lot of people are waiting to see how this plays out.”
Representatives for the Democratic Party of Illinois and Illinois Republican Party also declined comment. The Trump campaign has said that the efforts to block him are absurd and have no legal basis.
CREW President Noah Bookbinder offered no hint as to where his organization might next look to front similar litigation.
But in an interview with WBEZ, he said Illinois is “a place that could have the right kinds of conditions to sort of get out there and enforce this law when not everybody is willing to do it.” Illinois has Democratically-controlled executive, legislative and judicial branches.
Referring to language in the 14th Amendment, Bookbinder said “this is a provision that is specifically in there to protect democracy and to say that anybody who attacks democracy can’t then be put in charge of it.
“Donald Trump tried to overturn an election and essentially negate the votes of millions of Americans. That’s about as anti-Democratic as it gets, and this constitutional provision is out there to specifically respond to and prevent that kind of activity,” he said.
A spokesman for the State Board of Elections said his agency has fielded “a lot of emails from citizens” about how the 14th Amendment could come into play toward keeping Trump off Illinois’ March 19 primary ballot, but it’s an issue that board is unlikely to adjudicate.
“This is a constitutional dispute. And there is a 2007 decision from the Illinois State Supreme Court that said electoral boards in Illinois, including the Illinois State Board of Elections, don’t have jurisdiction to decide constitutional issues. That jurisdiction belongs strictly to the courts,” said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the state election board.
He’s referring to a court case that involved former Chicago Ald. Ambrosio Medrano, who sought a seat on the City Council despite being convicted in 1996 of extortion arising from misconduct in office. State law generally bars candidates from seeking office if they have felony convictions.
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, however, determined Medrano should be allowed to run based on the panel’s belief that the state statute was unconstitutional. The state’s high court, though, ruled the city election board exceeded its authority to wade into such legal territory and excluded Medrano from the 2007 ballot.
Based on that legal standard established by the state Supreme Court, Dietrich said “it’s going to take a court action if the 14th Amendment argument is introduced in Illinois as an objection to a candidacy for president.”
In Illinois, the ultimate decider of any such legal challenge against Trump’s candidacy could be the state Supreme Court, where Democrats now hold a 5-2 majority.
Candidates for president in Illinois have to file nominating petitions with the State Board of Elections next Jan. 4 and 5. And while Dietrich said he has no way of predicting if a legal challenge against Trump would emerge here, those are key dates to watch if one is to possibly sprout.
“My educated guess would be that at the time of filing, when a candidate files, that’s when a potential objector would file a court action because then you’d have an actual candidate filing to object to,” Dietrich said.
There is precedent in Illinois for kicking a presidential aspirant off the state ballot.
It last happened in 1972, when the precursor to the State Board of Elections voted to bar a presidential candidate nominated by the Socialist Workers Party of Illinois to be on the state ballot.
A federal court in Chicago upheld that decision, ruling that Linda Jenness was ineligible to run for president on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party because she was 31. The U.S. Constitution sets the minimum age to run for president at 35.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ and was a longtime Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.