Why Illinois voters were no-shows at the polls on Election Day

When all the votes are certified by the Illinois Board of Elections next month, it will likely show the lowest turnout for a presidential primary in at least 34 years.

And there’s still a chance the state could see the lowest voter turnout for any party primary dating back to 1978.

Currently, 2014 holds that ignominious distinction when just 18.1% of the state’s voters cast a ballot in the primary, according to election records.

Though thousands of properly postmarked mail-in ballots are still being tallied through April 2, state election officials believe it will be hard to crack 20%.

Unofficial results from the 20 most populated voting jurisdictions in Illinois — which represent more than 81% of all voters in the state — show less than 17% voter turnout combined.

Turnout tallies in the suburbs remain below 20% as well, with Lake County currently showing only 11.7% of registered voters cast a ballot.

“Most of the races were completely uncontested, with just one contested county board race on the Democratic side,” said Lake County Clerk Anthony Vega. “That lack of motivation could have resulted in voters not coming out.”

With that lack of choice, combined with the fact that Democratic President Joe Biden and former Republican President Donald Trump had all but secured their nominations ahead of Tuesday’s vote, low turnout was inevitable, experts said.

“But I was still shocked to see returns as low as they were,” said Ryan Tolley, executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for ethical government and elections. “Typically voter turnout is higher in presidential elections and that doesn’t seem to be the case this year in Illinois, which that could be the divisiveness of politics or voters not having any faith in the process.”

Tolley believes open primaries and preferred choice voting might lure more voters to the polls in future primaries.

Turnout for party primaries has been dwindling. In 2016, more than 40% of suburban voters cast ballots. By 2020, the suburban primary turnout was about 25%, records show.

Current suburban vote totals show only 14.8% of Kane County’s registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary, while Will County’s turnout rate is standing at 15.5%.

McHenry County election officials are reporting a turnout rate of 17.6%, while suburban Cook County stands at 17.2%. The hottest race in Cook County was between two Democrats vying for state’s attorney, which has yet to be settled.

DuPage County is reporting the highest suburban turnout at 19.6% currently. But there were also 20 different ballot questions posed to various voting blocs in DuPage. That’s compared to just four ballot questions in Lake County.

Still, with all the ballot questions, most involving a potential tax hike, election experts believe turnout should have been higher Tuesday.

“Tax referenda tend to draw more people and it doesn’t seem to have done it this time,” said Brian Gaines, Arrington professor of state politics at the University of Illinois. “And we’ve been making it easier and easier to vote in Illinois as well.”

Low turnout for a spring primary doesn’t necessarily translate to low turnout for the November election though.

In 2022, just 21.7% voted in the June primary, but 51.1% cast ballots in November.

As for the 2014 primary that has the lowest turnout in recent Illinois election history, the general election drew 49.2% of possible voters.

And when it comes to presidential election years, more than 70% of Illinois voters have cast ballots in each of the last five presidential votes, according to election records.

“We’ll probably be analyzing this all the way up to the general election and whether we’ll see a repeat then,” Tolley said.

  Karen Pernicka of Hoffman Estates votes Tuesday at the police department in Hoffman Estates. Brian Hill/
  Election Judge Monica Naples helps a voter Tuesday at the police department in Hoffman Estates. Brian Hill/
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