Low turnout, contestants? Don’t worry, say officials
11/06/2012 Wilmette Kathryn Brown of Wilmette, inserts her ballot after voting at St. Augustine's Church in Wilmette on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. | michael jarecki ~ for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 22, 2013 10:36AM
WILMETTE — Voter turnout data for Cook County’s most recent local elections could depress you if you believe in the ballot box; countywide, fewer than 17 percent of registered voters did so in 2011.
Consider how many local races – townships, municipalities, school, park, library or fire protection districts – are contested in April and you might despair further. An analysis by County Clerk David Orr’s office shows only 344 of all 935 races fit the bill; fewer than 37 percent, including fewer than 47 percent of municipal elections.
But you shouldn’t worry about local democracy’s future, local elected officials said this month.
For one thing, citizens do turn out in respectable numbers for specific races, they said.
For every local race where fewer than 10 percent of the electorate vote, Orr said last week, “you will have races where turnout is high. In 2009, the (consolidated local election) turnout in Wilmette was about 46 percent, for instance. If there’s a contest or an issue, you’ll have voters.”
Nor does low voter turnout necessarily mean citizens aren’t getting involved in public life or local government in other ways, Wilmette Park District President Jim Brault said last week.
“People are involved in many aspects of public service of volunteerism. Using government positions as a gauge is incomplete; you have to look at people involved in their PTOs, or churches, and the people who give input at public meetings on specific issues,” Brault said.
“I’m not excusing low turnout,” Orr said. “But there are also correlations between the level of satisfaction (with elected bodies) and turnout. I am also not going to judge a person who knows ahead of the vote that there are no choices.”
Officials acknowledged attracting good candidates for elected positions may only get more difficult, as tougher economic times mean tougher budget problems for local officials to tackle. That can make potential candidates think twice about running, Wilmette Village President Chris Canning said.
Canning said last week that he and other local mayors have talked about a decrease in the number of volunteers as people work longer hours and spend their remaining time with families.
“It’s not like going to a Boy Scout meeting once a week or once a month. This is a big time demand on people,” Kenilworth Village President Fred Steingraber said. “I think it’s increasingly going to be a challenge going forward to get the right people.”
Ultimately, the problems in democracy have less to do with low turnout or uncontested races and more to do with who influences policy after elections, Orr said.
“I’m more worried in the larger sense, the issue I always talk about, the gradual withering away of our democracy because of lobbyists and money,” he said. “And that’s not as much a factor in local elections.”
Still, Canning said citizens shouldn’t underestimate the power of their local vote. He also reminded people that they have more access – and therefore more immediate influence – on local officials than they might have in other political arenas.
“I say that more likely than not most people don’t have an opportunity to meet the President of the United States, or their governor or senator, but you do meet your local officials; you live with them and work with them, you see them in the grocery store or on the soccer field.”