Votes for a third candidate in the Cook County assessor’s race will now be counted after an appellate court on Wednesday restored her status as a qualified candidate, the latest twist in the much-watched contest.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 1st District Illinois Appellate Court came two weeks after city and county election officials began providing notices to early voters that votes for property tax consultant Andrea Raila wouldn’t count.
Since then, tens of thousands of people have cast ballots at early voting sites thinking their choice was between incumbent Joe Berrios and challenger Fritz Kaegi. To date, nearly 99,000 early votes have been cast, the vast majority of them after the notices went out. That figure doesn’t include tens of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots already sent out with the notices.
Election officials said those notices will now be removed from early-voting sites, and the votes for Raila will be counted — barring any further court intervention. Still, some legal notices placed in newspapers already had been printed or gone to press.
“This bell is difficult to un-ring,” said James Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
The appellate judges determined that county hearing officer Christopher Agrella, who found that a “pattern of fraud” occurred in collecting nominating petition signatures for Raila, “abused his discretion” in not allowing a key witness to testify. The witness, who was a petition circulator, had signed conflicting affidavits about how signatures were gathered and notarized.
The Cook County Electoral Board accepted Agrella’s recommendation to knock Raila off the ballot, and a trial judge agreed. The appellate court, however, reversed that decision and ordered the Electoral Board to “ensure that votes cast for Raila at the March 20, 2018 Democratic primary are counted.”
Raila attorney Frank Avila Jr. hailed the decision and called on Kaegi, who was behind the petition challenge, to apologize. “This is not a victory for Andrea Raila,” Avila said. “This is a victory for ballot access and democracy.”
Kaegi had hoped for a one-on-one contest because having another challenger splits the anti-Berrios vote. Still, some of Berrios’ political support has eroded in the wake of “The Tax Divide,” a series by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois that concluded property tax assessments under Berrios tended to favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
After Wednesday’s ruling, a Kaegi spokesman said the campaign was considering “all legal options,” including a potential appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.
“The Cook County Electoral Board . . .conducted a sound and thorough examination of the mountain of evidence that proved Raila’s fraudulent activity,” the Kaegi campaign said in a statement. “Reversing the circuit court’s decision just six days before Election Day sets a dangerous precedent that will encourage future campaigns to engage in fraud with no fear of repercussion.”
The Berrios campaign declined to comment.