Odds are you’re unlikely to vote in the March 15 general primary election. That’s a shame, because it’s easier than ever before to cast a ballot and participate in our democracy.
Voting is the answer to all our state and local problems. Fed up with the gridlock over the lack of state budget? Then vote. Tired of hearing about budget deficits and unfunded pension obligations? Vote! Sick of reading about public officials who only seem to care about raising enough money to get elected? Yep, vote.
Yet relatively few of us actually exercise our right to vote. We think our vote doesn’t matter, or we don’t know enough about the candidates and issues to cast a ballot. Or we just don’t like any of the choices.
“I think people are disgusted,” said Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots.
If past presidential primary elections are any indication, about one in five registered voters will vote in this primary. In 2012, for example, the total turnout was just shy of 21 percent in Will County. More than twice as many Republicans voters cast ballots than Democrats, when there were six Republican candidates in the field and incumbent Barack Obama was seeking his second term.
In the 2008 primary, the turnout was much higher: 43 percent, with voters choosing from nine Republicans and seven Democrats. In the 2004 primary, Will County turnout was 28.5 percent. In 2000, it was 22.7 percent. In 1996, it was 24 percent.
Voter turnout tends to depend on the type of election and peaks in the November general elections when voters choose a president every four years. In Will County, turnouts for those elections were 71.2 percent in 2012, 76.1 percent in 2008, 73.7 percent in 2004 and 70.4 percent in 2000.
Fewer voters participate in elections for governor and other offices. Turnout for those November general elections in Will County was 51 percent when Bruce Rauner beat Pat Quinn in 2014. It was 52.4 percent for the 2010 Quinn/Brady race, 46.6 percent for the 2006 Blagojevich/Topinka contest and 50.4 percent for the 2002 Ryan/Blagojevich race.
Turnout is even worse for the gubernatorial primaries, averaging 21.7 percent over the past 10 elections dating back to 1978, and pulling a paltry 15.6 percent in March 2014.
The saddest turnout figures, though, are for local races where voters could have the greatest impact. Consolidated elections for city council, village board, townships, libraries, schools, park districts and fire districts are held every April of odd-numbered years in Illinois. In 2015, Will County turnout was a pathetic 15 percent. Between 2007 and 2013, turnout was about 18 percent. Between 1995 and 2005, it was about 25 percent. In 1983, it was nearly 31 percent. Not a great number, but twice as high as it is today.
Voots has seen a lot of changes since becoming clerk in 2002. Will County’s population has grown to nearly 700,000 residents, of whom 392,913 are registered voters. Children, incarcerated inmates and non-U.S. citizens cannot vote. This will be the second election in which 17-year-olds can vote in the primary if they will turn 18 by the general election in November.
The clerk’s office tries to educate the public about the voting process and what contests will be decided in upcoming elections. Ahead of the March primary, the clerk mailed information to households with registered voters, telling them the location of their polling place and showing them a sample ballot.
In the past, people had to register to vote ahead of elections, and the registration cutoff was about a month prior to elections. Now you can register and vote on Election Day. Still, the clerk encourages citizens to register in advance to avoid slowing down the voting process at polling places.
There’s no longer any reason to risk inclement weather and long lines at the polling place on March 15. Early voting started Feb. 4, and the clerk sent out about 2,600 ballots by mail that day.
“Anybody can vote by mail,” she said. “They can vote at the privacy of their kitchen table.”
Will County residents can request a mail ballot by visiting the clerk’s website atwww.thewillcountyclerk.com; Cook County residents can visit www.cookcountyclerk.com. You can request mail ballots up to five days before Election Day.
County clerks manage voter registration rolls and handle the logistics of collecting and counting ballots. In Will County, Voots’ office has reduced the number of polling places to 303 from a peak of 452 in 2008.
We’re a mortal and mobile society, and clerks have to update voter rolls when people die or move. In Cook County, Clerk David Orr‘s office says it began tapping into the U.S. Post Office’s National Change of Address database last year. Orr says nearly 250,000 voter registrations statewide were automatically updated because of an election reform initiative he lobbied for in 2014.
Orr’s office says in suburban Cook County alone, more than 47,000 voter records have been updated, added or canceled since the new system was adopted. His office is able to report interesting tidbits, like:
“While 206 Orland Park voters just moved within the south suburb, another 125 voters moved into Orland Park from the neighboring towns of Tinley Park (48), Oak Forest (20), Palos Park (17), Oak Lawn (16), Orland Hills (13), and Palos Heights (11).”
Illinois, and Chicago in particular, haven’t had the squeakiest clean reputations when it comes to voting. (The phrase “vote early and vote often” comes to mind.) Historians like to debate whether Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley decided the presidency for John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960. The debate tends to focus on whether Illinois’ 27 Electoral College votes made the difference (Kennedy finished with 303 to Nixon’s 219). The legend that Chicago’s Democratic machine committed rampant voter fraud is almost accepted as fact.
That abuse of the public’s trust takes a long time to overcome. But 55 years later, it would seem the clerk’s offices in Cook and Will counties operate with integrity. I refuse to accept concerns about fraud, difficulty registering or inconvenience as reasons not to vote.
If you’re not voting, what’s your excuse?