For first time in a decade, suburban voters have more options in local elections
Over the past decade, suburban voters have watched their power at the ballot box slowly diminish due to a dearth of candidates running for local offices.
From 2009 to 2017, contested races in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties dropped from roughly 45 percent to barely 30 percent.
But that trend might be turning around.
For the first time in a decade, more local races will be contested this year than in the previous municipal election. In some cases, there are more contested races this year than in 2015 as well.
On average, nearly 37 percent of the suburban races will be contested in the four counties this election, according to a Daily Herald analysis of election data.
"There's a lot more activism and a lot more youthful activism," said David Orr, the former Cook County clerk who retired last year. "Part of it is that people just want to get out there and make a difference. There's also (President Donald) Trump motivating some, but not in a favorable way."
In suburban Cook County, voters will have a choice in 35.9 percent of the races this year, up from 30 percent in 2017. In DuPage County, voters have options in 37 percent of the races, versus the 31.1 percent of contested races in 2017.
In Kane County, voters have a choice in 39 percent of the races, a marked difference from 2017, when just 29.6 percent of the races were contested. In Lake County, voters will decide 38.2 percent of the races, up from 33.4 percent in 2017.
Early voting throughout the state begins on March 18, with Election Day slated for April 2.
The successes of many first-time candidates -- particularly in Illinois -- during last year's national election ignited many to seek local office this year, experts agreed.
"Much of the increase in competition could be attributed to more women being engaged and feeling more comfortable, where maybe 10 years ago that wouldn't have been the case," said Susan Garrett, a former state legislator and current chairwoman of the Center for Illinois Politics. "It's like a snowball effect when women see other women run and they're successful at it."
However, there are still more than 10 percent of suburban races without enough candidates to fill all the positions up for election.
Experts said that's a symptom of the sheer volume of elected offices available in Illinois, more than any other state.
When there aren't enough candidates to fill seats, the other board members can choose someone themselves to fill the role, taking the choice completely out of the voters' hands.
Orr oversaw elections for Cook County voters for almost 30 years and is familiar with the decline in candidate participation on the local level.
"What you really want, ultimately, are people who are serving the public interest," he said. "It's not necessarily a threat to democracy to not have enough candidates for every race; you don't want to have people running just to run."
Various civic organizations have created programs to entice, train and ready residents for public service since there are a multitude of options available in Illinois.
Carol Gieske, president and CEO of the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce, said her organization's ongoing leadership academy has graduated roughly 550 students since its inception in 1991. Several have gone on to hold elected office in the legislature or at the local level. It's not geared to any particular political leaning, she said.
"We've worked hard to make sure this is available to anyone interested in it," she said. "We've always had wonderful representation in the classes."
Corey Dixon is in his first term as an Elgin city councilman after graduating from the chamber's leadership academy. He said the training and networking experience focused his public service goals.
"I was already planning to run for office before I attended the academy, but once I was in the academy I realized what I wanted to run for and how to build the campaign," he said. "As for an uptick in candidates, good! The more the merrier. I think people are starting to understand how important local elections are and how they have a greater impact on you than who's president or senator or congressman."
Many pundits also believe an increase in choices at the ballot box translates to an increase in voter participation.
"Generally it's always a boost," Orr said. "If you get a really hot race going, even if it's local, that's going to translate to more votes in other races on someone's ballot who otherwise might not have voted at all if not for that one race."