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.

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?

From Brookings: Biden wins through suburban voters

William Frey looks at presidential voting by geography and concludes that suburban voters gave Biden his victory:

In the 2016 election, rural and nonmetropolitan America gave Donald Trump enough of a margin to beat Hillary Clinton in seven key states. Ahead of the 2020 election, Republicans worried that Trump would lose his rural edge, in light of reduced support there in the 2018 midterm elections. But this was not the case. Instead, Trump’s loss to Joe Biden was due mostly to voters in large metropolitan suburbs, especially in important battleground states…

However, large suburban areas in 2020 registered a net Democratic advantage for the first time since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. This is significant because more voters reside there than in the other three categories. In terms of aggregate votes in these large suburban counties, there was a shift from a 1.2 million vote advantage for Trump in 2016 to (at last count) a 613,000 vote advantage for Biden—a nearly 2 million vote flip. In addition, Biden benefitted from more modest Republican margins in small metropolitan areas. These advantages for the President-elect were even greater in key battleground states…

The three northern battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—which flipped to Trump in 2016—again entered the Democratic fold in 2020. Here, even more than in the national analysis, the 2016 to 2020 suburban shifts to either greater Democratic or smaller Republican support were instrumental in Biden’s victory…

Suburban voting patterns also made a difference in the Sun Belt, especially in large southern states where suburbanization has been rampant. The focus here is on two such states: Georgia, where Biden is ahead and a recount has been announced; and Texas, which Trump won, but where urban and suburban voting patterns closed the longtime Republican-Democratic gap.

This is the most detailed analysis I have seen thus far. The predictions were right: the 2020 presidential election depended on the suburbs!

It also brings several other features of American and political life into relief:

  1. Joe Biden was nominated in part because of his electability. In the long run, his electability in one particular kind of place was particularly important: suburbs. Trump, to some degree, knew this but his approach was more combative and did not have the appeal he hoped.
  2. While political analysis suggests middle suburbs are battleground areas, I wonder if this signals that these suburbs are also in the middle of all sorts of other trends including demographic changes, cultural tastes, and suburban inequality. To build on earlier posts, perhaps finding middle America right now involves going to a Walmart in a middle suburb or an emergency room in a middle suburb.
  3. Many people have discussed the electoral college in recent years. Here is a crazier proposal based on more recent trends: instead of the electoral college by states, how about an electoral college by cities, suburbs, and rural areas? With concerns on either side that cities or rural areas are controlling political outcomes, could there be some way to weight the results such that all three geographies could influence the outcome? Grouping votes by states obliterates any distinctions between places.

Suburban shift: 49-45 for Trump in 2016, 51-48 in 2020 for Biden

In 2020, the tight suburban vote swung opposite of 2016 and slightly in favor of Joe Biden:

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While there was much attention paid to late-counted mail ballots in urban areas that put Biden over the top in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the bigger shift was in the suburbs. In fact, there’s evidence that Trump actually improved his lot slightly in urban areas, which made the suburbs crucial for Biden.

In 2016 exit polls, Trump won the suburbs by four points, 49 to 45. This time, Biden won them 51 to 48 — a seven-point shift in the margin. Biden also joins Obama as the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry the suburbs since 1992, if the exit polls don’t shift from now. The New York Times has a great visualization of the shift from 2016.

Democrats’ suburban edge was also slightly bigger than in the 2018 election in which they won the House, when those areas split about evenly. And given that the suburbs account for about half the votes these days — and growing — Democrats will want to keep that going.

The only problem for them — and it’s a big split between the presidential race and down-ballot — was that this performance didn’t stretch to the conservative-leaning suburban seats Democrats were hoping to take from Republicans. So Democrats need to ask themselves whether this is really about the new reality or whether it was just about Trump, who underperformed his party in many ways, but particularly in these areas.

Two takeaways from these four paragraphs:

  1. The suburbs will continue to be a battleground in presidential, congressional, state, and local races.
  2. There appears to be a shift in 2020 compared to 2016 but this was a relatively minor shift. What happens in subsequent elections will help indicate whether a suburban shift is longer-lasting.

In other words, expect more of the same in 2022 and 2024 with campaigns and pundits focused on suburban locations in the swing states of the 2016 and 2020 elections as well as some other possible locations (like Texas). And county level analysis will be helpful but more fine-grained study will reveal where some of the important divides or pockets of different voters are in sprawling geographic areas.

First exit poll I have seen on suburban voters

In reporting exit polls yesterday, the New York Times included votes for Biden or Trump by location:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/exit-polls-president.html

The 2020 election, according to many pundits, was going to be decided by suburban voters.

The data above appears to follow the patterns from the last few elections. Cities go for Democrats. Rural areas and exurbs go for Republicans. The suburbs are contested ground. The splits are bigger in the table above: 9% advantage for Trump in small city or rural areas, 23% advantage for Biden in cities. And the suburbs are close with just a 3% gap.

Going even further, the suburbs of the true battleground states may be home to the truly important voters. In this election, the residents outside Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix and more might have just decided the election. That national 3% difference might not seem like much but it could matter a lot when state races are tight.

I am sure there will be more fine-grained analysis of the suburban vote by itself as well in comparisons to other demographic factors that influenced vote totals. But, this early data seems to suggest suburban voters will continue to be important in coming elections.

Changes in “countrypolitan,” exurban counties more than just political

The analysis of the 2020 election includes many analyses of suburban voters. But, there is more at stake here than just voting patterns as this look at Union County, North Carolina suggests:

Google Maps – Union County, North Carolina

Union County is what one scholar terms a “countrypolitan” place: Under federal government designations, it lies within a metropolitan area, but it also has a strong rural and agricultural history. For the most part, it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter suburb, nor is it impoverished. In fact, Union is North Carolina’s wealthiest county, according to the Census Bureau. There are places like it around the United States. They are distinct from rural areas, which are mostly Republican, and cities, which are heavily Democratic; many voters in these places are neither die-hard Trump fans nor urban liberals. That makes them pivotal counties, in 2020 and in the future.

Everyone agrees that Union County is changing. The question is how it’s changing, and how fast. There’s no doubt that Republicans will carry the county up and down the ticket this year—Carter, ensconced at East Frank, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here, back in 1980—but the GOP’s overall success in the state will hinge largely on how big a margin it is able to run up in exurban counties such as this one. Democrats’ control of inner-ring suburbs continues to strengthen, and the future of the Republican Party nationally depends on keeping firm control over places like Union County…

The reason Union County is changing is simple math. When Helms was born, about 4,000 people lived in Monroe. Today, nearly 36,000 do. Since 1990, the overall county population has almost tripled, from about 84,000 to roughly 240,000. As I traveled around the county, I began to notice something peculiar: Virtually everyone I talked with was a transplant. Some of them had moved only recently, and others had been around for 10 years, or 20…

“Union County when Jesse was in the Senate was a very rural county,” Wrenn says. “Now it’s got a big chunk of suburban in it. If the long-term trends continue, the Republicans are going to have to find a way to compete in the suburbs. It can be done, but you just have to change your whole way of thinking.”

The temptation in such stories about suburban voters is to look at counties and communities and just see political change. And it sounds like Union County has had its share comparing before the Civil Rights Era, after, and today.

The basic explanation for this recent change is new residents. The population has grown and new residents, not as familiar with the ways of Union County, have moved in. What was once a small population with low density is now much larger and in bigger cities and towns.

But, is this all that has changed: new people moved in and they came with some new political views? I suspect there is more going on here that both contributes to the political change and also exists outside of it. Here are a few possible factors at play:

  1. The suburbs and the spread of metropolitan areas are not just about increasing populations and higher population densities. The suburbs come with a particular way of life. People who seek out such locations want single-family homes, middle-class opportunities and peace for their family, responsive local government, and the ability to live in a place they chose with people who look more like them. This is different than a more rural or working-class character in communities. This desire for the American suburbs does not easily line up with either political party on all the issues but it certainly is a different way of life.
  2. The decline of agriculture, particularly family-owned farms and opportunities, could be at play here. As farming becomes more difficult or less desirable for subsequent generations, the land can be sold off and be turned into subdivisions. This is a significant change in land use as well as who lives there: farmers and those connected to agriculture versus middle-class suburbanites.
  3. Connected to #2, the economic landscape has changed tremendously in the last half-century or so, moving away not just from agriculture but also manufacturing and moving more toward retail, services, and a knowledge economy. Union County and many other locations in the United States are still trying to adapt to these large shifts that affect employment, tax bases, and local businesses.
  4. Numerous local institutions have likely had to adjust in light of growing populations. Schools need more space for kids. Local governments need to provide more services (and they might now have larger tax bases to draw on) and local officials are addressing new issues. Established churches now compete with new congregations. In sum, the civic and social institutions that may have existed for decades in roughly the same form now need to adapt. This can present challenges in any community.

In sum, this is not just about politics. A shift toward a suburban lifestyle in Union County has many consequences and politics may just be one of them.

Population density as a factor in deciding suburban votes

An AP story highlights how “Democrats march deeper into suburbia” and discusses the role of density:

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

For decades, an area’s population per square mile has been a reliable indicator of its political tilt. Denser areas vote Democratic, less dense areas vote Republican. The correlation between density and voting has been getting stronger, as people began to sort themselves by ethnicity, education, personality, income and lifestyle.

The pattern is so reliable it can quantified, averaged and applied to most American cities. At around 800 households per square mile, the blue of Democratic areas starts to bleed into red Republican neighborhoods.

A purple ring — call it the flip zone — emerges through the suburbs…

In Dallas, the purple ring through the suburbs was 18.7 miles in 2016 out from city hall, at an average of 714 households per square mile. The border runs close to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where the Dallas Cowboys play. Arlington is a so-called boomburb that morphed through new construction from a suburb to a city of 400,000.

A few thoughts on the potential role of density. First, an additional graphic (see below) works with the last paragraph cited above to draw concentric circles a city. This, however, suggests density is linear as one moves further out from the city. In general, this may be true but it would be interesting to see how pockets of higher density suburbs at different distances from the city affect these patterns.

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

Second, Is it density that predicts these outcomes or factors related to density? A third chart in the story looks at the population demographics at different densities and shows differences. Does the density come first or the population changes? The analysis here suggests a relationship or correlation but it is not clear whether this analysis accounts for other possible factors.

In the larger picture, what do Americans think about having these “flip zones” or middle suburbs be the current political battleground? For example, one current argument about getting rid of the electoral college suggests certain parts of the country should not a disproportionate sway over other more populous parts of the country. Right now, these middle suburbanites, particularly in swing states, have the influence and both parties want their votes. Are the interests of these suburban voters the interests of the entire country?

What vision of the suburbs do President Trump and other Americans have?

With recent words, President Trump has suggested Joe Biden and Democrats want to destroy suburbs. To Trump, what are the suburbs? One columnist puts it this way:

frontyard at the village

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Trump seems to have a suburb in his imagination, one that’s a remnant of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s populated entirely by white people, who came there to escape diversifying neighborhoods and are terrified that people of color might move in next door. These suburbanites can be pulled to the Republican Party with a proper dose of racialized fear.

Yet, the suburbs as a whole today do not look like this:

Trump seems to think it’s still 1973. But here’s his problem: The suburbs of today are very different than they were then. The suburbs are still majority white, but they’re more diverse than they were when Trump was refusing to rent to people of color. They have more immigrants, more people of color, more people with higher education — and critically, the white people who live there are rejecting Trump.

Suburbs have indeed changed – see this earlier post on complex suburbia. In multiple ways, suburban areas are now different. They have more nonwhite residents and more residents who are lower-class and working-class (as well as more who live under the poverty line). Some suburbs are classic bedroom suburbs populated by whiter and wealthier residents but there are also numerous suburbs that are more diverse and less well-off. Suburbs are now full of jobs, from manual labor and production jobs to elite white-collar positions.

While this story casts the issue in terms of voters and winning the 2020 election – and suburban voters are indeed crucial – there is a bigger issue at stake: what vision of American suburbs will win out? Here are three competing options:

1. The suburbs are the American Dream where anyone who works hard can purchase a single-family home, live with their family, and expect to live a relatively comfortable life and expect good things for their children. This is often tied to the mass suburbanization of the 1950s and 1960s – and this vision may have fully flowered at this point – but this ideology stretches back at least a few decades earlier.

2. The suburbs are the American Dream as they offer opportunities to all Americans who want to find the good life as defined by a decent job, a place to live, and peace and quiet. This would be a more multicultural vision of suburbs where the movement of minorities and those with fewer resources to suburbs in the last few decades represents progress and success as they too can enjoy a suburban lifestyle (and the dream of #1 was restricted largely to whites).

3. The suburbs are a dead-end for all Americans. According to critics of the suburbs, the emphasis on sprawling land use and driving, individual lives and private homes, and exclusion are not sustainable or desirable for future generations. While some people may want to live this lifestyle, we should encourage more Americans to live in denser communities.

No presidential election is a referendum on just one issue. At this point, the issue of suburbs is still not a front-burner issue: housing received limited attention at the Democratic debates and arguably Trump is more interested in discussing race and cities in ways to attract voters than he is in considering suburban life and its ongoing role in American life. Yet, this is an opportunity for Americans to think about what kind of spaces they want to encourage and inhabit in the future.

Some suburbanites do not like more explicit divisiveness or racism

With the 2020 presidential election riding on the suburbs, some suburban voters do not like the rhetoric and policies of President Trump:

young frustrated woman screaming with closed eyes

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From North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Arizona, interviews this week with more than two dozen suburban voters in critical swing states revealed abhorrence for Trump’s growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage. The discomfort was palpable even among voters who also dislike the recent toppling of Confederate statues or who say they agree with some of Trump’s policies.

As the president increasingly stakes his candidacy on a message of “law and order,” casting himself as a bulwark against “angry mobs” and “thugs,‘’ there are signs that he is alienating voters in bedroom communities who approach the debate over racial justice with a far more nuanced perspective than the president does.

The disconnect is especially pronounced in the swing state suburbs like Cornelius — traditionally a conservative-leaning area — and along the Main Line outside Philadelphia, where some educated white voters, including some former Trump supporters, are repelled by the president’s divisive rhetoric…

While Trump won suburban areas overall by 4 percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls, white college-educated suburban women have rapidly moved away from his Republican Party, and they helped deliver the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018. And now, as some polling shows Trump facing competitive races even in deep-red states, he cannot afford to lose all of those voters again.

What could be behind this discomfort among some suburban voters? A few possible answers:

  1. Suburbanites do not often like open conflict or confrontation in their personal interactions with fellow suburbanites. This could also apply to contentious social issues. If a candidate, party, or figure is openly combative, this may be too much for suburbanites who prefer more polite, refined discourse. Suburbanites have a particular status to protect, particularly those with education, good jobs, and homes.
  2. Suburbia has changed quite a bit in recent decades. Suburbanites themselves, particularly in middle suburbs (stuck between the exurban Republican voters and the inner-ring suburb Democratic votersthe exurban Republican voters and the inner-ring suburb Democratic voters), may have changed views of the world. Perhaps more well-off suburbanites than before do now care about race.
  3. Perhaps this is all still unclear or undecided months out from the election. Some suburbanites are caught in the middle and right now do not like Trump’s approach. If the economy picks up and COVID-19 winds down, will these same voters show less concern about polarizing views? If social movements, which are now in the suburbs too, wane, will this make it easier to support Trump?

Which way these voters go could indeed help decide the 2020 election. Among other things, it will be interesting to see how the candidates pitch themselves to middle suburbia (even as they balance pitches to other groups).