SPRINGFIELD — Scott Lee Cohen had the signatures to demonstrate he deserved to be on the ballot. In fact, he had 133,000 of them, five times the number required by law.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — Scott Lee Cohen had the signatures to demonstrate he deserved to be on the ballot.

In fact, he had 133,000 of them, five times the number required by law.

Cohen wheeled the 4-foot-high tower of nominating petitions on a dolly bound with screws and plywood into the Illinois State Board of Elections here, intimidating or preventing any challengers to stop his bid for office before it began.

The renegade candidate was on the ballot as an independent for governor in 2010, only to place in third with 135,000 votes.

But Cohen will be the last candidate to deploy this strategy.

A new law that caps the number of signatures a candidate can submit to be eligible for a place on the ballot is undergoing its first test in the 2012 campaigns.

Illinois has long had minimum signature requirements that differed depending on the race. Every candidate, from local office to governor, must submit signatures showing voters’ support for them. Candidates could submit hundreds or thousands more signatures than the law required.

“I never liked to file anything less than twice what was needed,” said state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake.

Under the new law, however, candidates for the state House have to present 500 valid signatures, but cannot submit more than 1,500, and those vying for the state Senate must collect 1,000 signatures and are capped at 3,000.

Presidential, congressional and local races are unchanged with minimum signature requirements and no cap.

This is the first week for candidates in Illinois to collect their signatures, and the new requirements are coming under fire.

“We don’t cap the number of voters, so why do we cap the number of nominators?” asked Tryon.

As the McHenry County Republican County chairman, Tryon also helps candidates get on to the ballot.

“We’re putting a packet together with the petitions that has a map, so people can see if they’re in the district,” Tryon said.

Where a voter lives determines which candidate’s petition he can sign. But Illinois’ new political map drawn for the 2012 races means some voters will see new names on the ballot.

“I don’t see how this is good for the democratic process,” said Jan Dorner, president of the League of Women Voters of Illinois.

Dorner is quick to say the League of Women Voters advocates for broad ballot access to ensure people can be involved in the political process.

However, “the newcomers, the Nicky new-guys who are trying to go to Springfield and help straighten out the mess that we’re all in, they’ll just run into this buzz saw,” said Dorner, referring to the new potential challenge a signature cap presents.

Tryon and Dorner said incumbents will have new power because of the signature cap.

“If (new candidates) don’t have access to voter rolls, they’re just taking a stab in the dark,” said Tryon. “It is entirely possible to show up with 1,000 signatures and still get booted off.”

But the law’s supporters say the political playing field is level.

“Everyone has to follow the same election code,” said state Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Chicago. “If everyone follows the same rules, then there won’t be any problems.”

Zalewski, who shepherded the signature cap through the state House, said the legislation was crafted to make the nominating process more open

“County clerks and county election authorities are inundated with challenges come filing time, in part, because you can have so many petitions,” Zalewski said. “This (signature cap) reduces the administrative issues for local officials.”

Tryon isn’t buying that explanation.

“If I challenge a candidate’s signature, I have to pay the costs,” Tryon said. “It doesn’t cost the counties a thing.”

Signature challenges can cost as little as the time involved for a volunteer to check the petitions, or as much as thousands of dollars when lawyers get involved.

Candidates in Illinois started gathering signatures Tuesday. The signatures and other campaign paperwork for anyone who will be on the 2012 primary ballot are due Nov. 21 to the State Board of Elections.

Candidates running for a statewide office, including the gubernatorial race, have to submit 5,000 signatures but cannot turn in more than 10,000.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the new law in July when it went into effect.

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