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posted: 2/27/2013 6:38 PM

Tuesday's dismal voter turnout wasted tax dollars, officials say

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Voter turnout Tuesday was so poor area election officials were calling the effort a waste of tax dollars.

And the waste may not be over. With so many races decided by only a few votes, the potential for costly recounts and court battles may see more tax dollars flushed down the drain, county clerks said.

Numbers show no county in the area managed even a 15 percent turnout. Suburban Cook County faired the best overall with a 13.8 percent turnout, according to the summary report available online. Much of even that low number is attributable to interest in the special primary to replace Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. In other places, such as Palatine Township, the top vote-getter was township clerk candidate Lisa Moran with a mere 1,612 votes.

Without a Congressional draw on the ballot, Lake County logged a turnout of a little more than 11 percent. The low total left Lake County Clerk Willard Helander scratching her head.

"Do voters generally not take an interest in local government -- those who plow their streets, offer police and fire services, levy taxes on real estate -- or were the voters not effectively enthused about the choices?" Helander said.

In DuPage County, a narrowly focused ballot fueled a 3.9 percent voter turnout, officials said. Tuesday's primary affected voters in only two precincts who could make a choice between five candidates for Aurora Ward 9 alderman.

Joseph Sobecki, DuPage County Election Commission assistant executive director, said that was the fewest precincts involved in any election during his 14 years with the commission.

A total of 69 ballots were cast Tuesday in DuPage County, and two of them were blank.

"This is just one small alderman race with just a portion of a small district," Sobecki said. "It was almost a nonelection election."

But neighboring Kane and McHenry counties couldn't say the same about their ballots, which featured a number of contests. McHenry's Grafton Township had the best turnout in the county at 6.1 percent. County Clerk Katherine Schultz said snowy weather can't account for all that apathy. She said one precinct in Woodstock didn't get a single voter after the snow began to fall. But before that, only eight voters cast a ballot. That's a lot of time and money spent to fully staff polling places, Schultz said.

Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham took that sentiment one step further. His county logged a 2.9 percent turnout. That works out to about one vote cast per minute in all of the county for the entire election day, Cunningham said. That's not enough to justify the cost of running the election.

"It's a shame the voters wasted tax money," Cunningham said. "This election certainly wasn't cost effective. The number of people who turned out is unheard of. It's really disheartening."

And possibly expensive.

Cunningham said losing candidates only needed 95 percent of the winner's vote total to call for a recount. If the winner received 100 votes, and the second place candidate 95, a recount is virtually guaranteed, Cunningham said. And with so few votes cast to begin with in many of Tuesday's contests, there are many more close outcomes to sort out.

A recount can cost a candidate as little as $10 per precinct that gets recounted. Or it can cost the county big money if the recount goes to the courts. A court battle is a nightmare scenario for local clerks because the full municipal elections are only a little more than a month away now. If contests are tied up in court, there is no way to know which name should be printed on the ballots. And with so few votes, several races have a high probability of qualifying for those recounts, Cunningham said.

Schultz and Cunningham said voters they talk to say they vote only in the big presidential or gubernatorial elections. It takes big races to draw big turnouts. Cunningham suggested all elections should occur in the same year with a superballot every four years, guaranteeing those big names at the top of the ballot. That idea, however, would require a change to the terms served at several levels of government, including Congress.

• Daily Herald staff writers Marie Wilson and Russell Lissau contributed to this report.

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