Where did the candidates go? Why most voters have few choices at the polls

More than two out of three races are uncontested in Tuesday's election. Here are some reasons why

Editor's Note: First of three parts

Suburban voters are seeing plenty of local races on their ballots this week, but they don't always see much choice.

Barely 30 percent of the hundreds of races being decided Tuesday are contested, according to a Daily Herald analysis. That's down from about 45 percent of races that were contested in local elections eight years ago.

“The voters I've talked with are excited about having a choice,” said Ron Sebonia, who is running for Elmhurst City Council against incumbent Jim Kennedy. Sebonia's candidacy forced the only contested municipal race in Elmhurst this year, where voters have only one option for mayor, clerk, treasurer and six of the seven council seats. The number of contested races in Elmhurst has dropped steadily since 2009, when six of seven council seats, mayor and clerk were contested.

The same is true across the suburbs. The number of contested races has declined since 2009, the earliest year with readily accessible records.

That means voters have a much smaller voice in selecting representatives to government boards that spend millions of tax dollars annually and make decisions that directly affect taxpayers' quality of life, home values and the education of their children.

The Daily Herald examined municipal, school, park, library, township and fire district races in suburban Cook, DuPage, Lake and Kane counties and portions of McHenry and Will counties. The analysis charted nearly 2,000 races this year, and only about 600 were contested.

Experts believe there are many reasons fewer people are running for local offices, from the cost of campaigns to the incivility of social media. The effect is voters more frequently must settle for someone who is merely willing to serve rather than choosing the best candidates from among a field of contenders.

Contested races usually force candidates to join in public forums or debates and discuss their views on issues and plans for addressing them. Candidates with no opponents sometimes aren't even invited to participate.

“By any statistical measure, we are a worse democracy than we were 40 years or even 20 years ago,” said Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Yet, some contend the low number of contested races could simply reflect satisfaction with the way things are going.

The decline in candidates is across the board.

In suburban Cook County, only 310 of the 1,034 races are contested, down from 447 of the 1,030 races in 2009. In DuPage County, 104 of the 334 races are contested, compared to 143 of the 315 races in 2009. In Lake County, 117 races are contested among the 350 on the various ballots this year, a drop from the 176 of 339 races eight years ago. In Kane County, 73 of the 247 races are contested, while in 2009, 98 of the 235 races were contested. In McHenry County, 65 of 244 races are contested, barely a quarter of the races. County officials were unable to provide past comparisons.

The analysis looked at races where names of candidates appear on the ballot. Write-in candidates weren't included.

The data collected from county officials also shows more races are on suburban ballots this year than during similar elections in 2013 and 2009.

That's because there are 185 races for unexpired terms, 60 more than there were in 2013. That means 185 people, most elected just two years ago, either couldn't or wouldn't finish the terms they were elected to.

The exodus from local candidacy in part is a result of growing personal and professional demands for many people, making time to attend board meetings scarce, experts said.

The downside of public service also dissuades some potential candidates, they added.

“People are jaundiced by what they've seen in politics lately,” said Greg Bielawski, a senior adviser at the Illinois City/County Management Association and former Carol Stream village manager. “People have seen in recent years the lack of civility that has crept into our politics, and many say they're just not going to expose themselves to that.”

Personal finances, relationships and posts on social media have become fodder in heated campaign battles. That happened to Arlington Heights dentist Joe Favia, who dropped out of an uncontested village board race after public outcry over his posting on Facebook of an internet meme disparaging participants in the Women's March on Washington.

“It's become a lot nastier is one way of saying it,” said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Races that used to feature three to four times the number of candidates needed are now barely breaking even, like at College of DuPage. In 2015, 12 candidates ran for three seats, but a bitter feud erupted among trustees that year and a federal lawsuit hovers over the board. This year, four candidates are running for three seats.

Some argue the difficulty of unseating incumbents discourages potential candidates.

“Research and history has shown it's incredibly hard to beat someone who's running for re-election,” said Court Harris, a 2015 candidate for the Arlington Heights village board who didn't run again this year after being soured on the process two years ago. “I think I was a little naive and thought I'd have something different to offer, but I found there's an undercurrent of established community leaders that don't encourage people to get involved and actively look for ways to dissuade people from getting involved.”

Researchers also point to the growing cost of campaigning as a reason for the drop in interest. In Mettawa, with a population of about 600, incumbent Mayor Casey Urlacher has raised at least $11,500 since January to keep his post in a race pitting him against Trustee Thomas Lys, who has raised $3,000, according to state election finance records. Four years ago, Urlacher spent $16,869 to win the seat 156-99, or $108 per vote.

But others believe the lack of competition at the local level might not be so bad. They suggest a satisfaction with the status quo.

“Maybe the reason a lot of races go uncontested is that the incumbents are doing a good job and challengers know that they can't win,” said Anthony Fowler, assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. “The fact that many incumbents are unchallenged doesn't necessarily mean they can just slack off or be corrupt and still go unchallenged; maybe they have to be good enough to avoid a challenger and they rise to that task.”

Stan Zegel would like to believe voters in his hometown of Winfield, traditionally a hotbed of political activity, are satisfied with the state of local government and that's why so few races are contested this year. But the political organizer said it's more likely due to apathy.

Zegel was so disheartened by the steady decline of candidates interested in serving at the local level that he created the Citizen Participation Institute, a nonprofit open-government training organization that aims to “increase the probability of voters having actual choices they can make in nonpartisan elections.”

His records date back to 1970, he said, and he can't find a time when so few races in Winfield have gone uncontested as this year.

“People that get elected deserve to be elected not by default,” he said.

Of the 19 races on Zegel's ballot, he has a choice only in the West Chicago Community High School District 94 race that features five people vying for four seats and the contested College of DuPage race.

In contrast, four races on his ballot don't have enough — or any — candidates to fill the open seats.

Monday: At least 150 suburban races don't have enough people on Tuesday's ballot to fill board seats. What happens next?

Tuesday: Some boards routinely are flush with candidates. Here's why.

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