Last in line

It was a quarter till four in the afternoon, the Monday after Thanksgiving, when a line of wool trench coats and puffy winter jackets appeared at the corner of Clark and Lake. They stood in the cold, wide-eyed first-timers, jaded political operatives, and others almost ambivalent to the custom. They waited to walk through the revolving glass doors of the Chicago Board of Elections Loop Supersite—a downtown storefront turned into a polling place adjacent to the el tracks. This was the last chance to get on the ballot for February’s municipal election. 

Corey Denelle Braddock wore a navy blue, zippered sweatshirt with “Corey Denelle Braddock for 37th Ward Alderman” printed on the back. He had on a matching baseball cap. I asked why he was submitting petitions an hour before they were due. “I wanted to get as many signatures as I could because I wanted to make sure that dirty tricks aren’t something I’m affected by,” he told me.

Krystal Peters, candidate for the new Seventh Police District Council, laughed when I asked the same question. “I’m a master procrastinator,” she said. Another woman said, “I’m excited to get this over with.” 

“My name is Wendi Taylor Nations, and I’m running for alderman of the 43rd Ward,” Wendi Taylor Nations, wearing a tan wool coat, told me eagerly, as if narrating a campaign advertisement. “I’m here because I want to get into the lottery to be the last person on the ballot.”

It’s a Chicago tradition for prospective candidates to line up outside the Board of Elections office hours, if not days, before the period to submit petitions to get on the ballot opens. Board officials hand candidates a white slip of paper if they’re in line by 9 AM on the first day petitions are due. The hope is that by winning a lottery, your name will appear at the top of the ballot. (That is, if you successfully dodge attempts from your opponents to kick you off the ballot.) 

In the 2020 documentary City So Real, Willie Wilson supporters camped outside the elections board office the night before to get a top spot on the ballot for the 2019 mayoral election. (Wilson paid these people.) Cleopatra Draper, candidate for Ninth Ward alderperson, was in line at eight in the morning on a Friday this year, even though doors didn’t open until Monday morning. 

There’s no advantage to being first in line. The rules say candidates who filed “simultaneously”—four transferred calls later, I learned that this means anyone who shows up before doors open—and received a ticket are placed in the lottery. But it’s not for nothing. Research shows that there is an electoral advantage to having your name listed first on a ballot. 

There’s also a second lottery, a week later, for folks hoping to get the last spot on the ballot, available to those in line by 4 PM on the last day petitions are due. It’s a last-minute chance for the latecomers and superstitious to test their luck. Research, apparently, shows there’s also some advantage to being last.

When I went, the first ones in line were supporters of second-time mayoral candidate Chuy García, the last one to file petitions in a crowded race. “We want Chuy! We want Chuy!” they chanted as they saved his spot. Minutes later, the U.S. Congressman materialized with his wife, Evelyn, and political advisor Clem Balanoff. Together, they wheeled a cart with a large stack of petition signatures wrapped in green plastic and held down with bungee cords. A large cartoon replica of García’s trademark mustache was taped to the front of the cart. 

García was the first to step through the revolving doors. The room was decked in blue curtains, and rope barriers ran through the middle. The space quickly filled with his supporters and news crews who followed like ducklings. Once at the registration tables, García tossed his stack of petitions on top. A board official measured the stack with a yardstick (it was just a few inches short from the top). At nearly 50,000 petition signatures, García had one of the highest counts among mayoral candidates and even more than incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot. His gambit worked: On Tuesday, election officials announced the results of the lottery, and García was indeed last on the ballot.

This was the last chance to get on the ballot for February’s municipal election.

More office seekers trickled in throughout the next hour, though it was less of a spectacle. Near the entrance stood a police officer and a few board officials keeping watch. Reporters camped out in the corners using their coats as blankets to lie on. It was uncomfortably warm inside. Almost everyone’s attention was on the big name in the room. 

“Twenty-eight is a very lucky number in the Chinese community,” Don Don humbly told me. A candidate for 11th Ward alderperson, he stood with his hands behind his back and spoke in a hushed tone. He told me that he announced his campaign on September 28, and it only made sense to file his petitions on November 28. 

Others stood in line to get referendums on the ballots. Dixon Romeo and Savannah Brown, two young, Black community organizers from South Shore, showed up with 750 signatures to get two questions on the ballot for Fifth Ward residents: Do you support a holistic package of housing protections for South Shore residents? Do you support the use of a city-owned vacant lot at 63rd and Blackstone for affordable housing? 

Romeo said the referendum would be nonbinding, or without legal power. But he said it would send a message to retiring Fifth Ward alderperson Leslie Hairston and Lightfoot about the lack of affordable housing, directly from residents. One board official at the registration table patiently wrote the referendum questions by hand on different sheets of paper for each of the 12 precincts in the ward.

Would the referendum get enough support? “We’ll let the numbers talk,” Romeo said. 

By 5 PM, officials locked the doors. Only a handful remained inside. Andre Smith, candidate for 20th Ward alderperson, stood at the end of the line. He had a big smile on his face. He told me the other two candidates in the race, Jennifer Maddox and the incumbent alderperson Jeanette Taylor, had similar first names, so his name would stick out by being last on the ballot if he won the lottery. 

I chatted with a board official and a political consultant who didn’t want to be named. They sat on chairs, ties loosened, relieved that the day was almost over. Both agreed that filing petitions had gone smoothly this year. It was a miracle they were done before six, they said. 

For more than two hours, I watched as candidate after candidate exited the building. The process of getting (and staying) on the ballot is arduous and complicated, and it was designed to be that way. Yet every election cycle hundreds accept the challenge, even if there’s no real guarantee of victory. For these people who braved the cold and long lines and red tape, no tactic can be ruled out. 

Peters, one of the last candidates to exit, walked out joyfully. “Even if I don’t win,” she said, “I’m in.”

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