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Acevedo v. Cook County Officers Electoral Board

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 5, 2019

Edward Acevedo, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Cook County Officers Electoral Board, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued March 29, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. l:18-cv-00293 - Elaine E. Bucklo, Judge.

          Before Hamilton, Barrett, and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.

          Barrett, Circuit Judge.

         Before Edward Acevedo could appear on the 2018 Democratic primary ballot for Cook County Sheriff, he had to obtain a certain number of voter signatures on a nominating petition. He didn't meet the signature requirement, so he was kept off the ballot. He then sued the Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois electoral boards, arguing that the Cook County signature requirement is unconstitutional because it is more onerous than the signature requirement for statewide offices. According to Acevedo, the comparatively higher county requirement can survive only if it is narrowly tailored to advance a compelling state interest.

         Acevedo is wrong. Strict scrutiny is not triggered by the existence of a less burdensome restriction-it is triggered only when the challenged regulation itself imposes a severe burden. Because Acevedo has not alleged that the burden imposed by the Cook County signature requirement is severe, the defendants need not show any justification for it beyond Illinois's interest in orderly and fair elections. That interest easily justifies the signature requirement here.


         Under Illinois law, potential candidates for public office must file a nominating petition to gain a place on a political party's primary ballot. That petition must include a certain number of signatures from voters in the jurisdiction where the candidate seeks election, and those signatures must be collected within a 90-day window. 10 ILCS 5/7-10. Candidates for statewide offices must collect 5, 000 signatures. Id. 5/7-10(a). Candidates for countywide offices in Cook County must collect a number of signatures equal to 0.5% of the qualified voters of the candidate's party who voted in the most recent general election in Cook County. Id. 5/7-10(d)(1). According to this formula, Acevedo had to gather 8, 236 valid signatures to appear on the 2018 Democratic primary ballot for Cook County Sheriff. He gathered only 5, 654, so he was denied a place on the ballot.

         Acevedo filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that this denial violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of association and equal protection. His argument relied on the distinction between the state and county signature requirements. According to Acevedo, the statewide requirement reflects Illinois's judgment that making candidates collect 5, 000 signatures is sufficient to protect the state's interest in ballot management. Even so, the state demands 8, 236 signatures from Democrats seeking countywide office in Cook County. Acevedo argued that Illinois could not impose this heightened burden unless doing so furthered a compelling state interest. Insisting that Illinois lacked any such interest, Acevedo sought a declaratory judgment pronouncing the Cook County requirement unconstitutional, as well as injunctive relief to bar enforcement of the requirement and compel the defendants to place his name on the Democratic primary ballot.

         The district court held that Acevedo had failed to state a claim and dismissed the complaint. The court made clear that there is no bright-line rule requiring any county ballot requirement that is more stringent than a state requirement to be justified by a compelling state interest. Instead, the focus is on the burden imposed by the challenged regulation. And here, the court explained, Acevedo had failed to allege that requiring candidates to gather 8, 236 signatures is a constitutionally significant burden.


         Though the election is over, Acevedo's claim is not moot because it is capable of repetition, yet evading review. This branch of the mootness doctrine requires that "(1) the challenged action was in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, and (2) there was a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party would be subjected to the same action again." Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147, 149 (1975). These requirements are often met in ballot-access cases. See, e.g., Norman v. Reed, 502 U.S. 279, 287-88 (1992); Gjertsen v. Bd. of Election Comm'rs of City of Chi., 751 F.2d 199, 202 (7th Cir. 1984). Here, the timeline for collecting signatures to appear on a primary ballot is too short to fully litigate a challenge to the signature requirement. In light of this, and because Acevedo has expressed his intention to run for office in Cook County again, his challenge remains live.[1]

         The constitutionality of a ballot-access restriction depends on "a practical assessment of the challenged scheme's justifications and effects." Stone v. Bd. of Election Comm'rs for City of Chi., 750 F.3d 678, 681 (7th Cir. 2014). That assessment is governed by the two-step analysis that the Supreme Court announced in Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780 (1983). We "first consider the character and magnitude of the asserted injury to the rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments that the plaintiff seeks to vindicate." Id. at 789. We "then must identify and evaluate the precise interests put forward by the State as justifications for the burden imposed by its rule" and weigh these interests against the burdened rights. Id. In doing so, we look to the "legitimacy and strength" of the proffered interests, as well as "the extent to which those interests make it necessary to burden the plaintiff's rights." Id. In Burdick v. Takushi, the Court emphasized that this test applies to all First and Fourteenth Amendment challenges to state election laws. 504 U.S. 428, 432-34 (1992).

         Under this flexible Anderson-Bur dick standard, the level of scrutiny with which we review a ballot-access restriction depends on the extent of its imposition: "the more severely it burdens constitutional rights, the more rigorous the inquiry into its justifications." Libertarian Party of Illinois v. Scholz,872 F.3d 518, 523-24 (7th Cir. 2017). "Nondiscriminatory restrictions that impose only slight burdens are generally justified by the need for orderly and fair elections," whereas severe burdens must be "narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest." Id. at 524 (citation omitted). Because of this dichotomy, ...

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