Turnout for local Chicago area elections low again: under 20% in counties

Americans have regular opportunities to vote in local elections and Chicago area voters did not turn out in large numbers in this week’s election:

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At the county level, voter turnout mostly hovered in the low to midteens, typical for many counties in consolidated elections. On the lower end, McHenry County reported a voter turnout of 9.5%, and Kankakee County topped voter turnouts across the counties at 18.6%. The pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on voter turnout, according to county clerks’ offices, with sufficient alternative options for people to vote early or by mail instead of in person.

In Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, turnout was 14.7%, 15.6% and 13.7%, respectively.

In Will County, southwest of Chicago, 15.8% of voters cast a ballot Tuesday. That’s nearly 3 percentage points higher than the previous consolidated election in 2019, which had a voter turnout of 13.2%, said Charles Pelkie, chief of staff for the Will County clerk’s office…

Finding information on local candidates presents a challenge for voters, Pelkie said, confined mostly to mailed flyers and local radio or television ads. In general elections, Will County voter turnout can reach about 80%, Pelkie said, but local races don’t “inspire” voters in the same way as presidential or gubernatorial races.

I think this explanation is correct in that residents have to do a lot of work to find out about all the candidates and races. See my post on this yesterday.

But, there are other factors at work as well. As noted in the article, national races drive up turnout. I wonder if national politics has now completely overshadowed local and state politics through the last few presidential cycles. Americans often say they like local government but many eyes are now only turned to Washington.

Big issues in communities can drive up turnout. County level data can obscure higher levels of turnout for intriguing races. Yet, even interesting or important local issues might be drowned out by larger politics or the overwhelming number of choices.

A little thought experiment. Imagine a local government unit decided elections are no longer necessary or will not take place as frequently. They could cite the amount of money that is needed to run elections. Lots of energy is expended from both winning and losing candidates. I would guess there would be local protest; how can you have local government without regular elections? Would it prompt people to vote more often in local elections?

Or, could eliminating government bodies or consolidating such bodies in Illinois help? Reduce the number of candidates to choose from. Limit the number of taxing bodies that local funds go to. Focus some of the positions on broader issues rather than details of particular institutions. Again, this could be viewed as being anti-democratic but the current system does not seem to interest many voters.

The difficulty of keeping up with all the choices in local elections

I voted in the local elections held yesterday. I study suburbs and am aware of the fondness many Americans have for smaller and/or local governments. And I find it difficult to know who or what I am voting for in local elections.

In class yesterday, I started by talking about the importance of local elections. If residents care about their community, they can run for local offices or serve on volunteer committees. Without all of this important work that can require high levels of commitment for limited compensation, things would not get done. Because turnout can be low in local elections, candidates can be elected with relatively few votes.

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In certain elections, certain parts of the ballots stand out. Perhaps it is a development issue. Perhaps it is a referendum on a local tax increase to fund local schools. Perhaps it is a particular race, like a heated mayoral election or a pandemic facing members of the school board.

Beyond those more noteworthy circumstances, there are many choices. Forest Preserve commissioners. County Board members. Local judges. Township leaders. And so on. Sometimes, I know something that helps me make a choice. I read local news that helpfully presents local candidates. I watch some local forums where candidates talk. I am aware of some of the local concerns. I may know someone or know of someone. But, I cannot keep track of everything. Hence, the popularity of just voting a slate or a party for particular positions. Or, a set of endorsements from local media. This is all on top of what might be happening at the state of federal level.

This problem might be exacerbated by the number of units of local government Illinois has. However, I suspect this is a larger issue among Americans. Having many choices for many offices may help lead to lower turnout. Only some people have the motivation and wherewithal to find all of the information needed on local issues and candidates. People are disconnected from local groups and institutions through which they might hear about candidates and issues.

Americans like the idea of local elections but it is hard to keep up with all of the local government activity.

Searching for the perfect name for a slate of candidates in local elections

Keeping in mind regulations, non-partisan traditions, and what might appeal to voters, candidates running for local elections in the Chicago area come up with some clever names for their slate:

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A court ruled in 2017 that candidates in Illinois don’t need to be part of a slate to run under the banner of a political party. So Dubiel decided to create a party of which he would be the only member — LZ Thrive…

When the calendar turns to the spring municipal elections, political passions are no longer contained to Republicans and Democrats. In suburb after suburb, you’ll find parties with monikers like People Before Politics, We’re in This Together, You Are the Village’s Heart, the Common Sense Again Party, the United Party for Progress or, most expansive of all, the Party of the Past, Present and Future…

One way to avoid such complications is to change the party’s name for every election, thereby making it a brand-new entity that can control its slate. That has been a routine practice in Bolingbrook, which for more than three decades was run by former Mayor Roger Claar under a variety of party names…

Those included Citizens for Bolingbrook First, the Bolingbrook First Party, Bolingbrook First and, in its most recent iteration following Claar’s 2020 retirement, the First Party for Bolingbrook.

I imagine there is an art to this. What exactly can capture a particular local spirit? Many of the names quoted above emphasize a bright future or emphasize a collective community spirit. There is a sense of optimism or forward momentum. (There could be the occasional anti-growth or preserve the community slate names in there as well – just not quoted above.)

If many of these are in the suburbs, other names might fit with the broad themes of suburbia: Making the Best Suburb for Your Children! Boosting Your Property Values! Keeping Certain Land Uses (and People) Out! Maintaining Our Lead Over Other Nearby Suburbs! And so on.

What if this was possible at the national level? What could Democrats and Republicans come up with every two and/or four years to really emphasize their particular focus in that election? Since each party does reconfigure their platform each election to fit current priorities, perhaps this would make some sense. It could also help eliminate the confusion over long-term shifts where one party used to support something but now it is the other party that pushes it.

Abolish townships or worry about turning them blue (or keeping them red)?

Illinois has many taxing bodies and government units. Illinois moved to stop creating new government bodies and DuPage County resolved several years ago to work to reduce the number of government bodies. Townships are a common target; they exist above municipal governments and below counties so are they necessary?

I thought of this recently with the lead-up to the upcoming local elections. On one side, I have seen signs urging voters to “Turn Milton Blue.”

This might be a strategy to boost local turnout and connect to broader political patterns. But, I do not know what these candidates want to do at the township level. What significant changes are needed?

On the other hand, I have seen campaign material for Republican candidates for Milton Township. This material listed all the things that the township does, presumably because of the Republicans there. For a party that at least talks sometimes about limited government, should they argue townships are unnecessary rather than fighting for political seats?

More broadly, how much do these township races benefit the people and communities of Illinois? In a time of budget deficits before COVID-19 plus further issues because of COVID-19, is it more important that one party or another holds the majority of seats in townships?

Will turnout increase for upcoming local elections?

Election season is near in our area. Local elections often have really low turnoutsuburban municipal officials can be elected by just a small fraction of the population. But, perhaps this year will be different for a few reasons:

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  1. Local battles over COVID-19. With disagreement with and mistrust of national responses, local elections offer an opportunity to weight in on local responses. In particular, decisions about school reopenings are hot issues in elections for school boards. Add in debates about local businesses and eateries and voters might want to weigh in.
  2. Carryover from national elections and political polarization. Traditionally, local elections are non-partisan. Yet, the rancor at the higher levels could carry over. For example, I saw a large sign today looking to turn township positions blue. How much local officials might actually be able to do in regards to these debates is likely limited but it could help some voters and officials feel better.
  3. The activism of Black Lives Matter in suburbs plus responses to it could send more voters to the polls. How should communities address inequalities or disparities?
  4. Concern about municipal budgets. COVID-19 has created new problems and a number of communities already faced issues. How should money be spent and what could be done to bring in more revenue? The competition might just be heating up among suburbs to find government and tax revenues.

In other words, these are not typical local elections during good times. The local election turnout malaise might not be there. Since suburbanites tend to like local government, will they turn out this time when there are multiple pressing issues?

Explaining why suburban voters are seeing fewer contested local gov’t races

Compared to previous years, suburban voters going to the polls together will have fewer choices:

Barely 30 percent of the hundreds of races being decided Tuesday are contested, according to a Daily Herald analysis. That’s down from about 45 percent of races that were contested in local elections eight years ago…

Experts believe there are many reasons fewer people are running for local offices, from the cost of campaigns to the incivility of social media. The effect is voters more frequently must settle for someone who is merely willing to serve rather than choosing the best candidates from among a field of contenders…

The exodus from local candidacy in part is a result of growing personal and professional demands for many people, making time to attend board meetings scarce, experts said.

The downside of public service also dissuades some potential candidates, they added.

Given all that we have heard in recent years about dissatisfaction among the electorate, it is interesting that this doesn’t appear to translate into wanting to get into politics to change things. Shouldn’t the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or Trump supports have flooded local elections with an interest in changing government and society?

When you talk to local officials, they often tell of getting into politics to address practical local issues – these are not often ideologues with grand ambitions. (Thus, it is unusual when a local politician gets involved with national politics such as the recent story in the New York Times of the Bolingbrook mayor and Donald Trump.) Is it simply easier to be angry with government and the disavow any need to participate? (And don’t forget that voting in local elections is often quite low.)

“Nothing that is off-limits to political data mining”

Your consumer data is of value to political campaigns and parties eager to reach individual voters:

But as presidential campaigns push into a new frontier of voter targeting, scouring social media accounts, online browsing habits and retail purchasing records of millions of Americans, they have brought a privacy imposition unprecedented in politics. By some estimates, political candidates are collecting more personal information on Americans than even the most aggressive retailers. Questions are emerging about how much risk the new order of digital campaigning is creating for unwitting voters as the vast troves of data accumulated by political operations becomes increasingly attractive to hackers…

“There is a tremendous amount of data out there and the question is what types of controls are in place and how secure is it,” said Craig Spiezle, executive director of the nonprofit Online Trust Alliance. The group’s recent audit of campaign websites for privacy, security and consumer protection gave three-quarters of the candidates failing grades…One firm, Aristotle, boasts how it helped a senior senator win reelection in 2014 using “over 500 demographic and consumer points, which created a unique voter profile of each constituent.” Company officials declined an interview request.

When investigators in Congress and the FTC looked into the universe of what data brokers make available to their clients – be they political, corporate or nonprofit – some of the findings were unsettling. One company was selling lists of rape victims; another was offering up the home addresses of police officers.

I think several things are relevant to note. First, it sounds like the majority of this data is not collected by political actors but rather is aggregated by them to help predict voter behavior. In other words, this data collection is happening whether political actors use the information or not. This is a bigger issue than just politics. Second, should American residents be more concerned that this information is available in the political realm or is available to corporations? The story suggests political campaigns aren’t well prepared to protect all this data but how do corporations stack up? Again, this is a larger issue of who is gathering all of this data to start, from where, and how is it being protected.

Another area worth thinking more about is how effective all this data actually is in elections. This story doesn’t say and numerous other stories on this subject I’ve read tend not to say: just how big are the differences in voting behavior among these microgroups or people identified by particular consumer behaviors? Is this the only way to win campaigns today (see media reports on political campaigns successfully using this data here and here)? Is this knowledge worth 1% in the final outcome, 5%, 10%? Perhaps this is hard to get at because this is a relatively new phenomena and because data companies as well as campaigns want to guard their proprietary methods. Yet, it is hard to know how big of a deal this is to either consumers or political actors. Is this data mining manipulating elections?

Nate Silver: “The World May Have A Polling Problem”

In looking at the disparities between polls and recent election results in the United States and UK, Nate Silver suggests the polling industry may be in some trouble:

Consider what are probably the four highest-profile elections of the past year, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. and U.K. media:

  • The final polls showed a close result in the Scottish independence referendum, with the “no” side projected to win by just 2 to 3 percentage points. In fact, “no” won by almost 11 percentage points.
  • Although polls correctly implied that Republicans were favored to win the Senate in the 2014 U.S. midterms, they nevertheless significantly underestimated the GOP’s performance. Republicans’ margins over Democrats were about 4 points better than the polls in the average Senate race.
  • Pre-election polls badly underestimated Likud’s performance in the Israeli legislative elections earlier this year, projecting the party to about 22 seats in the Knesset when it in fact won 30. (Exit polls on election night weren’t very good either.)

At least the polls got the 2012 U.S. presidential election right? Well, sort of. They correctly predicted President Obama to be re-elected. But Obama beat the final polling averages by about 3 points nationwide. Had the error run in the other direction, Mitt Romney would have won the popular vote and perhaps the Electoral College.

Perhaps it’s just been a run of bad luck. But there are lots of reasons to worry about the state of the polling industry. Voters are becoming harder to contact, especially on landline telephones. Online polls have become commonplace, but some eschew probability sampling, historically the bedrock of polling methodology. And in the U.S., some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys, “herding” toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently. There may be more difficult times ahead for the polling industry.

It sounds like there are multiple areas for improvement:

1. Methodology. How can polls reach the average citizen two decades into the 21st century? How can they collect representative samples?

2. Behavior across the pollsters, the media, and political operatives. How are these polls reported? Is the media more interested in political horse races than accurate poll results? Who can be viewed as an objective polling organization? Who can be viewed as an objective source for reporting and interpreting polling figures?

3. A decision for academics as well as pollsters: how accurate should polls be (what are the upper bounds for margins of error)? Should there be penalties for work that doesn’t accurately reflect public opinion?

Growing Latino populations in American cities

Latinos constitute a growing share of American urban populations, raising implications for future political races:

While many cities are experiencing an influx of young whites, those gains are more than offset by the continuing exodus of working- and middle-class whites. The result is a net decline nationwide of the white share of city populations.

Hispanic ascendance is apparent in both cities and suburbs, increasing the likelihood of the election of Latinos to local, state and federal office.

Over time, blacks stand to lose leverage. Cities have been a crucial base of power for African-American politicians. Insofar as the black population becomes diffuse, black leaders will have to grapple with a decline in black-majority districts, especially city council districts, in cities with declining black populations…

Frey pointed toward the rapidly increasing strength of the Latino vote in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of city dwellers in such areas who are Hispanic grew to 26 percent from 17 percent; and the share of suburban residents who are Hispanic rose to 17 percent from 8 percent.

Some striking demographic changes that have potential consequences in areas like politics. The changes are numerous: an influx of younger, educated whites into city centers even as whites leave other areas of cities; an increase in the suburbanization of blacks; and growing Latino populations in both cities and suburbs. These changes may not quickly become apparent in the political landscape but should at least draw the attention of political operators. For example, is incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel really in danger in the run-off election? Given the demographic changes in large cities like Chicago, perhaps.