Primaries: Low voter turnout, big cost to taxpayers

Most suburban taxpayers didn't get to vote in the February primaries, but they all covered the bill for the few who did get to cast a ballot.

They paid an estimated $130 per vote in DuPage County to let 67 Aurora residents narrow their Ward 9 aldermanic choices from five to two ahead of the April 9 election.

They paid about $125,000 in Cook County so about 2,900 Republican voters in Palatine Township could decide which members of warring GOP slates would run township government for the next four years.

They paid about $30,000 in Lake County to have 4,166 Democratic voters determine which of the party's three Waukegan mayoral candidates would face two independent candidates in the actual election.

Even though races were few for the Feb. 26 primary, the cost of staging such a vote is still hefty, officials said.

“We have to do everything for a primary that we do for a regular election,” said McHenry County Clerk Katherine Schultz. “It's very expensive.”

Proponents contend primaries give voters the most power, while critics argue it's a costly exercise used mostly to settle intraparty spats that could be resolved through other means.

Schultz hasn't finished tallying up the bills from the primary that featured Republicans in four townships squaring off against one another and attracted a combined 6,155 voters — just 4.7 percent of the registered voters in those townships, according to Schultz's records. Election officials in other counties only had estimates on costs.

Bob Saar, executive director of the DuPage Election Commission, estimated the cost of the single-race primary there to be about $8,600. Lake County Clerk Willard Helander put costs to taxpayers there for six races at roughly $40,000.

Cook County Clerk David Orr said it costs roughly $1,800 per precinct to stage the primary and, with more than 400 precincts participating in the primary, the cost to taxpayers was likely around $700,000. However, most of that cost was a result of the 263 precincts opened for the Democratic primary to replace Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.

Kane County Clerk John Cunningham said all the bills for the county's primary hadn't been added up there, either, but he put most of the cost at the feet of Aurora Township Democrats.

Even though fewer than 1,300 of Elgin's 41,214 registered voters in Kane County cast ballots to narrow a city council race from nine candidates to two, Cunningham said the Aurora Township Democratic primary was an unnecessary expense.

“Had the Democrats in Aurora Township not been fighting, we would not have had to spend as much,” he said. “It's an internal power struggle that Aurora's Democrats made us spend money on at the county level.”

Only 2.6 percent of the township's registered voters cast a ballot in the contest.

Suburban election officials have mixed feelings on primaries.

“If you are a candidate or a person interested in the race, it's priceless, they'd say,” Helander said. “The big costs are staffing, printing ballots, renting facilities and hiring people to move equipment.”

In Lake County, more than $37,000 was spent on salaries for “election judge and site manager payroll,” Helander said. Costs could have been as much as $7,000 higher if ballots hadn't been printed in-house, she added.

But proponents believe the cost is justified because it lets voters, not party leaders, set the table for the actual election.

While every other township party organization in Cook County was able to slate candidates through the caucus process at no charge to taxpayers, Democrats in Berwyn and Thornton townships and Republicans in Palatine Township relied on a taxpayer-funded primary to decide who would appear on the April 9 ballot.

“I don't think caucuses are a good way to have a contested election,” said Aaron Del Mar, chairman of the Cook County Republican Party. “With so many candidates vying for these seats, it didn't look like the caucus would be the best fit for Palatine.”

Intraparty squabbling in the Palatine Township Republican Organization led to a need for a primary with three different slates of candidates vying for various roles within the township government. With only one Democrat seeking a trustee post in the April election, the winners of the Republican primary would ostensibly control the township, so the primary was important in ensuring that voters made that decision, Del Mar said.

Del Mar said problems with the caucusing process eight years ago made going to a primary vote a better option.

“Quite honestly, I think that's unfair to (taxpayers),” said Dexter Stokes, the lone Palatine Township Democratic candidate. “They shouldn't be paying for something Republicans are fighting about. Republicans should foot the bill themselves.”

Del Mar, however, said local political organizations would be “penalized for expressing your right” if they had to cover the direct costs of the primaries themselves.

Cook County Clerk David Orr, a Democrat, agrees with Del Mar.

“If they are having an intraparty spat, that's what elections are for,” Orr said. “I'm always up for finding anything that will make elections cheaper, but I'm not for anything that will limit democracy. I would support elections over caucuses. Where there is clear competition, we want those local voters to come out and participate.”

Some have suggested moving these springtime consolidated elections, which take place in odd-numbered years, to the general election cycle that takes place in November of even-numbered-years. Those elections traditionally have seen better voter turnout also. However, Orr is concerned November ballots would become unwieldy by adding more races.

He said the biggest election cost-cutter would be a vote-by-mail option.

“The cost then would depend mostly on what you did about the postage,” he said.

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