Maryam Ahmad
Maryam Ahmad

Chicago’s election authority has ruled that the write-in candidacy of a sitting Cook County judge is invalid, hours after the judge publicly announced her run.

Thursday’s decision from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners means that any write-in votes cast inside Chicago for Circuit Judge Maryam Ahmad in the 1st Judicial Subcircuit will not count.

Ahmad is challenging Rhonda Crawford, a former law clerk who was fired by the Cook County Circuit Court for allegedly masquerading as a judge.

The board’s decision, spelled out in a one-page letter, is based on state law preventing candidates who lose their primary election from mounting write-in challenges in the general election. Ahmad lost her primary race in March.

“According, you are ineligible to file a declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate for the November 8, 2016 General Election,” wrote Lance Gough, the board’s executive director.

A spokeswoman affiliated with Ahmad said the judge is conferring with Burton S. Odelson, an election law attorney at Odelson & Sterk Ltd., on the next steps. Odelson did not return a request for comment.

Under Sections 17-16.1 and 18-9.1 of the Illinois Election Code, a candidate who loses his or her primary challenge is barred from being a write-in candidate “for election in that general or consolidated election.”

As one election expert noted, however, the law does not clarify whether a defeated primary candidate can mount a write-in campaign for a different office in the general election.

Ahmad lost her primary campaign for the 1st Judicial Subcircuit for the Brim vacancy; Crawford is running opposed in the same subcircuit for the Hopkins vacancy, which is technically a different office.

But the election board is taking a broad view of the law.

“Anyone who is defeated in the primary cannot run in the general election,” said board spokesman James Allen. “Our assumption is if it could say that,” referring to running for a separate office in the general, “it would say that.”

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners consulted with the State Board of Elections, which reached the same conclusion.

State Board of Elections General Counsel Kenneth R. Menzel said a literal reading of the law states that a candidate has essentially one shot in an election cycle.

“Until a court says (a candidate can), the election authorities are stuck with interpreting the statute exactly the way it is written,” Menzel said.

Ross D. Secler of Ross D. Secler & Associates, a Chicago election law attorney who has represented both Democratic and Republican candidates, said an argument could be made that a defeated primary candidate is allowed to mount a write-in challenge for a different office.

But he noted that with such an argument, “you’re trying to have another bite of the apple, which the law is designed to avoid,” Secler said.

Additionally, it’s not clear there’s a distinction between offices, even if the seat Ahmad is trying to obtain is in a different spot on the ballot than the one she tried to win in March. It would have the same title, duties and even draw from the same judicial subcircuit.

“This is a different vacancy, and judges run vacancy by vacancy, but it’s not a different office,” Menzel said.

Ahmad would have a clearer argument, Menzel and Secler said separately, if she had lost a primary and was now seeking office in a separate position or level of government in the general election.

The city board’s decision to deny Ahmad’s write-in candidacy has no impact on her status for 1st Subcircuit voters in the south suburbs whose ballots are counted by the Cook County Clerk’s Office.

A spokesman with the Cook County Clerk’s Office said the office has not decided yet whether to reject Ahmad’s write-in candidacy. At this point, Ahmad would be considered a valid write-in candidate.

Menzel postulated that it is possible that write-in votes for Ahmad could be counted from suburban Cook County, but not from the city.

The 1st Judicial Subcircuit encompasses a number of South Side wards and some suburbs in Thornton Township. However, the vote totals in the March primary indicate that the bulk of 1st Subcircuit votes come from Chicago.

Nearly 80 percent of all the voters who weighed in on the March primary race between Ahmad and Jesse Outlaw — an associate with Stuttley Group LLC who won the contest — were from the city.

If left standing, the board’s decision to deny write-in votes for Ahmad complicate the plans of groups like The Chicago Bar Association, which runs radio advertisements touting the candidates they have found to be qualified for judicial office.

Ahmad was rated as qualified by the CBA in March as part of the group’s evaluation of judicial candidates. Crawford did not participate in evaluation process, so she was automatically considered to be “not recommended.”

The CBA has not yet released its judicial recommendations for the general election.

But in an interview, CBA President Daniel M. Kotin indicated the group would have weighed in on a Crawford-Ahmad race.

Crawford’s alleged misconduct — donning a judge’s robes and adjudicating at least two cases — would have made the decision to back Ahmad “a very quick and easy position for the CBA to take,” Kotin said.

Kotin said he regrets the board’s ruling because it gives no choice to the public.

“It puts the CBA in a tricky position if there is no alternative choice to Miss Crawford,” he said.

Crawford does not face a Republican candidate in the Nov. 8 general election. She captured 46 percent of the vote in the March 15 Democratic primary against two others for the Hopkins vacancy.

She will remain on the November ballot unless a court order removes her, Crawford is convicted of a felony or she loses her active law license — which is a constitutional requirement for a judicial candidate.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has opened a criminal investigation into Crawford’s alleged misconduct.