Where voting has commenced in an election, a party may not alter its bylaws to make a currently eligible candidate ineligible, as to do so violates the resident’s right to vote.

The 1st District Appellate Court affirmed the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge Robert Bertucci.

Steven Graves was elected the Republican ward committeeman for the 19th Ward on Chicago’s South Side in a primary on March 15, 2016. On April 5, 2016, he received a certificate of election from the Cook County clerk declaring him the 19th Ward’s committeeman for a four-year term.

However, in response to perceived infiltration of the Republican Party by Democratic operatives, the Cook County Republican Party amended its bylaws on March 9, 2016, six days prior to the election to include a section stating that “[a] vacancy shall exist in the office of Republican [c]ommitteeman in any ward or township in which an elected or appointed committeeman votes, or has voted, in the primary for another political party in the previous eight years.”

Graves had voted in another party’s primary in the past eight years, and on April 12, 2016, the county Republican chairman sent Graves a letter stating that he failed to meet the eligibility requirements of his office and a vacancy existed.

Graves filed suit for declaratory judgment against the county Republican Party and Chicago Republican Party on April 15, 2016, arguing that bylaw conflicted with Section 7-8 of the Illinois Election Code which lays out the requirements for ward committeeman and only requires that they be the resident of and in the ward where they seek election.

The Republican Party officials moved to dismiss, arguing that they had an absolute right to set eligibility requirements for their candidates and leadership.

The circuit court found in favor of Graves, noting that there was no objection at the time of his candidacy or even when early voting began on Feb. 4, 2016, and the bylaw was not passed until less than a week prior to the Election Day, after voting had begun.

The court concluded that changing the rules at this point violated the public’s fundamental right to have their vote in the election counted. The Republicans appealed.

On appeal, the Republicans argued that the ruling intruded on its First Amendment right of free association and that the right to vote does not create a compelling state interest sufficient to supercede bylaws, rendering Sections 25-6 and 7-8 of the Illinois Election Code unconstitutional.

The appellate court noted that Graves’ declaratory judgment action specified that the bylaw had been enacted and applied after early voting had commenced and did not challenge the Republicans’ right to enact such a provision generally but only its application to his election six days after its passage, after over a month of early voting had occurred.

The appellate court emphasized that the issue at hand was not whether sections of the code violate the Republicans’ right to freedom of association, but whether their exercise of that right by changing the bylaws during an ongoing election violated the ward residents’ right to vote, an issue of first impression.

The appellate court examined the bylaw under the strict scrutiny standard and found that the bylaw was not narrowly tailored because the bylaw could have been revised to take effect the following election or been enacted prior to the start of voting. However, as passed, it violated the residents right to vote and should not bar Graves from holding office.

Justice Mathias W. Delort specially concurred, arguing that any attempt by a state party to exercise veto power over the candidate selected by the party’s voters would be a code violation.

The appellate court, therefore, affirmed the circuit court’s decision.

Steven S. Graves v. Cook County Republican Party, et al.

2019 IL App (1st) 181516

Writing for the court: Justice Shelvin Louise Marie Hall

Concurring: Justice Mary K. Rochford

Specially concurring: Justice Mathias W. Delort