EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one-half of part one of our Absent Voters series. Read the other half of part one on how residents who have high and low civic engagement are disproportionately represented at the polling place. The Northwest Herald examined data from the last 15 years of McHenry County-wide elections for federal, state and local offices to look at the trend of decline in civic participation.
Laws passed by legislators over the years have made it easier and easier for people to vote.
In McHenry County and elsewhere, however, fewer and fewer people are taking them up on it.
A glance at turnout records from the 24 countywide elections held since 2000 tells a tale of declining interest when it comes to civic engagement.
While turnout for November presidential races has remained strong – about two-thirds of county voters cast ballots in those – the same can’t be said for the primaries in which the parties select their candidates.
In 2012, fewer than one Republican voter in five bothered to participate, which was less than half of the turnout for the 2008 presidential primary.
Turnout for presidential elections is the best case when compared with others.
While just fewer than half of county voters cast ballots in the midterm elections in which the governor and all statewide offices are elected, a midterm primary in which one voter in four shows up is a good year.
In the past two gubernatorial elections, which featured a Democratic incumbent who helped engineer the largest income tax increase in state history, fewer than one county GOP voter in five cast ballots.
Even in 2014, when political outsider Bruce Rauner shook up a Republican slate of longtime political insiders, turnout in GOP-dominated McHenry County was 17 percent.
The worst turnout, by far, is for the consolidated, odd-year April elections in which municipal, school, township and other officials are elected.
Those elected in these elections make decisions that shape McHenry County’s property tax bills, which are among the nation’s highest.
Only 25.2 percent of voters cast ballots in 2001, which was the largest turnout during the 15-year period the Northwest Herald analyzed.
That election featured 15 referendums asking for property tax increases or permission to borrow money.
Turnout has decreased steadily since. Only 1 in 10 voters participated in the 2015 local elections.
In the 2013 and 2015 elections, a number of races were decided by one or two votes.
If you ask a dozen experts to explain voter apathy, you’ll more likely than not get a dozen answers.
One reason is a new generation that seems less interested in voting, said state Rep. Mike Tryon, who for six years served as McHenry County Republican Party chairman.
“I honestly believe that this younger generation just isn’t engaged in the voting process. They’re definitely about the issues, but getting out and voting isn’t something they focus on,” Tryon said.
Another problem is that the state’s 7,000 units of local government – the largest total by far of all 50 states – make civic engagement difficult.
Educating oneself about the candidates and the issues is a herculean undertaking when your ballot includes two school boards, a city council, township trustees, a community college district, a fire board, a park district board and a library board.
The final report of a task force assembled by Gov. Bruce Rauner to explore consolidation argues the glut of local governments does not help the democratic process.
“Besides increasing costs for residents, when living in an area with too many layers of government, one’s ability to participate in the democratic process is increasingly difficult. It is next to impossible for residents to remember all of their officials’ names, let alone engage in meaningful dialogue about what services the agencies representing them perform,” the report stated.
The system by which the General Assembly draws its legislative boundaries every decade – derided by critics as legislators selecting their voters instead of the other way around – also does not instill confidence in voters that their voices will be heard.
When people are convinced politicians are crooks and the game is fixed, voting is not high on their priority list, said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
“The problem is people getting so cynical or angry, and saying it doesn’t matter, or people not wanting to come forward and run for public office. We have a lot of people who would be good candidates, but they don’t want to get involved in politics. Especially Illinois politics,” Yepsen said.
In a growing number of cases, the voting that state and local residents seem more interested in is voting with their feet and moving out of state altogether. The Land of Lincoln last year led the U.S. in population loss, and McHenry County over the past two years has lost people as well.
Whatever the reason behind voter apathy, the disengagement is harmful not only to democracy, but also to residents’ pocketbooks.
The already-strong power of incumbency is further amplified when most people decide not to vote. It makes elected officials, especially for local governments, less likely to take answering to voters into account when making taxation and spending decisions.
Apathy also can lead to embarrassing outcomes, such as when Scott Lee Cohen, a Chicago pawnbroker with a questionable past that included a domestic battery charge, clinched the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2010.
A growing number of candidates are running unchallenged because apathy also translates to people not wanting to run for office. In all but one odd-year election since 2000 in McHenry County, more than half of the candidates ran unopposed. Even in presidential and midterm elections, an average of about one-third of candidates since 2000 have run unopposed.
Some efforts have been underway by individuals, civic groups and government to help get people interested in voting.
Besides new state laws making it easier to get to the polls, the new McHenry County clerk is looking to give voters more options. Groups such as the McHenry County League of Women Voters hold forums for voters to hear the platforms of candidates in contested races. The group and others make regular trips to schools and community colleges to register people to vote.
To Yepsen, the biggest thing Illinois can do is to “start cleaning up our politics.” He favors the effort to take the power of redrawing state and federal legislative districts after each U.S. Census out of the hands of lawmakers and into the hands of an independent commission. A reform group is making another attempt at getting the signatures needed to force a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution to do just that.
“People are cynical about Illinois. Eighty percent think the state is moving in the wrong direction. They’re angry, but they’ve grown cynical. They don’t think their vote matters … their attitude is, ‘To heck with all these politicians,’ ” Yepsen said.
“I believe more and more people are disenfranchised with the partisan nature of politics,” he said. “It isn’t producing the kind of government they want.”
ABSENT VOTERS SERIES:
• McHenry County voter interest declines over decade — A look at the numbers including voter turnout, contested races, and some theories as to why civic engagement is so low
• McHenry County sees low Latino turnout, strong guns, anti-abortion support — How residents who have high and low civic engagement are disproportionately represented at the polling place.
• Apathy can cause tie votes, misrepresentation, McHenry County officials say — A lack of voters is compounded by a lack of candidates for many local elected offices, which in turn leads to a lack of choices and accountability.
• McHenry County's uncontested elections spark lack of accountability — What are the results for communities when voters won’t participate in elections?
• McHenry County agencies aim to boost turnout by registering, informing citizens — What's being done on the federal, state and local levels to encourage more participation in government?