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Political participation varies in county's precincts

Published: Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Mike Greene – mgreene@shawmedia.com)
GOP precinct committeemen Glenda Miller speaks Wednesday with Demetri Tsilimigras, secretary of the Algonquin Township Republicans, during a fundraising event for County Board Member Donna Kurtz at Park Place Banquet Facility in Crystal Lake.

The two major political parties in McHenry County have distinct differences in the number of volunteers formally signed on to canvass the area, knock on doors and work the ground game that is vital to any campaign.

A review of county election records reveal that the McHenry County Republican Party has a 76.9 percent participation rate at the precinct level. About 160 Republicans represent the county’s 212 voter precincts as committeemen tasked with turning out voters to the polls on Nov. 6.

The Republican rate greatly outpaces the McHenry County Democratic Party, which has a mere 21.7 percent precinct participation rate. Only 46 Democrats represent the county’s 212 voter precincts, from Chemung Township to Algonquin.

With the general election nearly a month away, the precinct dichotomy could be said to suggest that Republican enthusiasm in this election is high or that the county’s Democratic Party is disorganized.

But leaders from both parties said the precinct participation is likely the result of multiple factors, including the county’s conservative history and party differences in election strategy.

“Our strategy for winning an election starts at the precinct level. It’s very important to have a precinct connected to somebody in the local party,” county GOP Chairman Mike Tryon said. “It gives me somebody to go to if there are people who need a ride on Election Day or asking to be an election judge or get involved.”

The GOP leadership in the county relies on the central party organizations within the townships to monitor and fill vacancies at the precinct level. The party also has a contingency plan for precincts that lack local party ties.

Tryon, who is also a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, said that the party will send other volunteers to meet with voters and will increase its campaign mailers to those deficient areas, which primarily are Grafton Township and Algonquin this year.

The Democratic Party is relying more on informal volunteers to hit the ground and knock on doors for its candidates. Democratic Chairman Mike Bissett said his leadership is finding that more people are choosing to work with a candidate without formally representing the party.

That also fits into the party’s strategy, which he said puts the onus on the candidate to develop a ground strategy.

“I don’t think [precinct participation] reflects poorly on the party,” Bissett said. “The traditional official structure of how a party functions is not the reality of politics in today’s world. ... Candidates who are motivated will figure out a way to get the volunteers they need regardless of how many precinct committeemen there are.”

Although committeemen can wrangle votes for their party, many in the county viewed their role as a community service, with general voter turnout as the No. 1 goal.

Andy Glab, a Republican who represents McHenry Precinct 26, said he does use his time with McHenry voters to inform them on what Republican candidates he thinks are best suited to hold office.

But the five-year committeeman, who also is a McHenry alderman, admits that he doesn’t actively track whether voters are going to vote Democratic or Republican, since most voters in the modern political age don’t cast a straight party ballot.

“More than anything else you really have to press the issue of how it’s important to get out there,” Glab said. “If they feel their candidates are in good enough shape that they are going to win, it’s still important for them to know the better the showing, the more strength a candidate has on a position they carry.”

Glenda Miller, a Republican who represents Precinct 1 in Chemung and serves as deputy county treasurer, takes a similar approach. She said she tries to inform voters on the issues rather than promote one candidate over another.

“The actual education, that’s what voters truly understand,” Miller said. “That’s really the challenge is having voters understand the issues before they go out and cast their vote.”

For others, representing a precinct is a chance to become more connected with the local issues. Sue Ryerson, a Democrat who represents Precinct 2 in Grafton, said the role allows her to get more immersed in local politics and the officials who craft the policy.

Ryerson, a full-time social worker, is new to precinct work after being elected to the committee post in March.

“I have enjoyed learning more about the process, and I do think it’s helpful in feeling that you have a better idea on what’s going on at the local level,” she said.

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