Tired of the status quo, hundreds of residents across the region rose up this winter to challenge those running their towns — not suspecting the system was stacked against them.

They knocked on doors. They persuaded neighbors to sign petitions. They filed their paperwork to get a spot on the ballot.

Then, one after another, scores of candidates were struck from April's ballot by panels of local officeholders, often allies of the very people the candidates were trying to unseat.

The panels are supposed to preserve the integrity of an election. But week after week, in suburb after suburb, incumbents used them to slay opponents — and limit voter choice — usually over mundane mistakes: a missing word here, too many words there, a paper clip instead of a staple.

Kicking opponents off the ballot — before voters get a say — is a long-standing, if ethically questionable, tactic in Illinois politics. Battles over high-profile candidates sometimes make headlines.

But a Tribune investigation found the practice pervading the levels of government closest to residents, from village halls to school boards. Ultimately, tens of thousands of voters were left with fewer choices on next month's ballot in communities rich and poor, from far north Antioch to far southwest Plainfield.

Even those who survived the legal minefield ended up sapped of time and cash needed to reach voters with their pitch for change.

"This system is inherently unfair," said Richard Means, an election law attorney handling ballot disputes for 40 years. "The people who write the laws and their allies benefit from the system."

For its investigation, the Tribune focused on races that critics say are the most troubling: suburban candidates running for city and village offices. Reporters canvassed every suburb in the Chicago region, reviewed scores of objections filed against candidates and interviewed dozens of those involved in the system. The newspaper found:

Widespread abuse. At least 200 candidates faced objections this year, with only a small fraction alleging serious matters, such as criminal histories, residency issues or outright fraud. Ultimately panels kicked 76 candidates off the ballot across three dozen suburbs.

Rampant bias. Of those knocked off, most fell at the hands of panels stacked with members who had a political stake in their own decisions. Conflicts also went beyond simple politics: Even relatives ruled on their own family members' cases.

Wild inconsistencies. The rules are not evenly applied, with similar infractions leading some panels to remove candidates, but not other panels.

Costly tabs. The challenges cost taxpayers in some towns tens of thousands of dollars each election cycle, many times in suburbs that can least afford it.

The system has its defenders, who argue the complex law and bare-knuckle legal battles weed out those too weak or incompetent to govern. Among them is veteran Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch, who got to vote this year to kick two critics off the ballot.

"It is a privilege to run for office, not a right," Welch said. "There are rules in government that we all have to follow."

But others say the system is fundamentally unfair. They include numerous attorneys specializing in the field, incumbents and even those who for years have used the system to their advantage.

"It's just a bad system altogether," said political operative David Donahue, a Cicero candidate this year. "And it should be scrapped."

Left in the cross hairs are political newcomers such as Allen Arneson, of Countryside.

The 62-year-old retired corporate executive unwittingly walked into an election system geared against those like him.