Uncontested races likely mean status quo on local taxes
A lack of ballot competition in Tuesday's election means many homeowners aren't likely to see much in the way of policy change when it comes to property taxes.
While voters will make key choices in some local races, more than 60 percent of the 2,100-plus races that will be decided in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties are uncontested, have fewer candidates than seats available or have no candidates at all.
In most cases, the unchallenged candidates are incumbents.
"I thought there would be more people running," Lake County Clerk Willard Helander said. "When someone complains about their property tax bill we try to tell them this is the election for that. There are a lot of policy decisions made by people in these positions that impact that bill."
Roughly 70 percent of suburban property taxes go to school districts, but less than half of the 372 school-related races are contested in the five suburban counties. Even fewer municipal, township and other government positions offer voters a choice.
Some voters will see more options than others. In suburban Cook, Lake and McHenry counties, almost two-thirds of races are already decided because there is no competition. In DuPage and Kane counties, about 56 percent of all the races are uncontested.
That amounts to millions of tax dollars being spent to stage an election where the majority of races are already determined.
Candidates in races that are contested have a wide range of views on how tax dollars are spent and other issues. Visit the Daily Herald's online election guide at dailyherald.com/news/politics/election/ for more detailed information about them.
Apathy, time constraints and lack of knowledge keep many people from seeking public office, election officials and voter advocates said. Others who attempt to get on the ballot have their candidacies challenged and can be removed for myriad minutiae.
"You've got a general lack of interest, lack of knowledge in the ability to run and then you have a ballot access problem through the numerous detailed regulations in the election code," said Maryam Judar, a community lawyer with the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center. "People don't want to get involved in what they consider contentious and thankless positions."
That's a growing problem, many agreed.
"Nobody wants to run for elected office because they don't want the heat for what people over the last 30 years before them did," said Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, who recently began listing the debt of each unit of government on property tax bills. "Qualified people are saying, 'Who needs this?'"
Even when there is a financial incentive -- with some getting paid anywhere from $50 a meeting for some city council seats to six figures with benefits for some township positions -- many races are not competitive. Seats on suburban village boards or city councils are up for election Tuesday in nearly 900 races, but 56.6 percent of those are essentially predetermined because there is no competition. Almost 70 percent of the 428 township races in the five suburban counties are uncontested.
"People are so bitter about politics," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who lost a February primary election battle to be his party's nominee for mayor in his hometown. "Instead of getting involved, they're doing the opposite and getting away from it."
An analysis of races in the five counties shows that nearly three-quarters of the 400-plus races for seats on boards of park, library and fire protection districts are uncontested.
Most of the races where there are fewer candidates than seats available or no candidates at all are for these boards. The lack of interest usually leaves these boards in the hands of individuals who are appointed rather than elected. The chosen are often hand-picked by administrators of these agencies to oversee multi-million-dollar budgets.
Judar said Illinois needs stronger "civic education requirements" to help spur greater interest in public service in the future.
"I'm not surprised that so few races are contested only because I've seen this election after election," she said. "The low pool of candidates is due, in part, to a general lack of civic education."
Voter turnout at the local elections is also often much less than other elections.
With nearly 7,000 units of government in Illinois, some also believe government consolidation would solve the problem in part. Recently, Link tried to form a commission to study consolidation only to be thwarted by his colleagues in the statehouse.
Reducing the number of offices could also reduce the number of elections, Link said. Primaries and general elections are held in even-numbered years for statewide and national offices and in odd-numbered years for local offices. This has some voters at the polls twice a year.
"Why are more people coming out to vote for president of either party than they do for their own school board when (the school board) elections have a greater impact on their taxes?" Link asked. "We're trying to undo years of voter apathy."