Suburban voter turnout turned off with only 13% casting ballots

Only 13 percent cast votes in suburban races

  • Only 13 percent of the suburb's registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday's election, the lowest rate for any election since at least 2006.

    Only 13 percent of the suburb's registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday's election, the lowest rate for any election since at least 2006. Daily Herald file photo

 
 

Only 13 percent of the suburb's registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday's election, the lowest rate for any election since at least 2006.

Yet 20,000 more people voted Tuesday in the suburbs than in 2015, which still holds a low-water mark with 460,299 ballots cast.

The bad news/good news about voter participation results, in part, from the explosion in registered voters in the suburbs since 2015.

Today, there are 3,698,553 registered voters in suburban Cook County and the five collar counties of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will. That's 451,545 more registered voters than in 2015, when 14.2 percent of suburban voters cast ballots, according to a Daily Herald analysis of suburban voting records.

With hundreds of races in each county, some drew more voters than others. The Hinsdale High School District 86 tax hike question in DuPage County brought more than 40 percent of the district's voters to the ballot box, with the looming threat of massive extracurricular cuts if the request didn't pass. It did.

But scores of other races had less than 5 percent turnout, according to vote totals available on some election websites, mainly because they weren't contested.

Ultimately, 480,446 votes were cast across the suburbs in Tuesday's election.

The growth in actual voters is little comfort to political scientists, local politicians and suburban election officials, who worry low voter turnout shows a dangerous level of apathy by the electorate.

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"Boy, doesn't that tell you that people think government isn't relevant to them and there's nothing they can do to change anything?" said former Lake County Clerk Willard Helander, who ran the county's elections for two decades before retiring in 2014. "As long as their garbage is picked up and they don't get too many tickets, they don't think anything is relevant to them."

Local elections in odd-numbered years routinely draw few voters, though the candidates chosen decide how suburban schools operate, how much people pay in taxes and what amenities grace our towns.

The cycle before a presidential election year, like this election, when there are fewer mayoral races on the ballots and no politically affiliated township races, draws particularly low participation. Illinois is one of the few states that holds local elections separate from statewide or federal elections.

"If we really wanted to encourage more voter turnout, we'd hold these with the midterm and presidential elections," said Scot Schraufnagel, chair of the political science department at Northern Illinois University. "Opponents will complain that these races will get dwarfed, but nobody is really paying attention to them now, so that argument falls short."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On Tuesday, DuPage County recorded the highest voter turnout rate in the suburbs at 14.7 percent, followed by suburban Cook County's 14 percent turnout rate. Both had more voters cast ballots this year than in 2015.

"That is a silver lining," said Ed Michalowski, the Cook County's deputy clerk for elections. "It's very encouraging, in some respect. Additionally, early voting was much higher than it was four years ago -- 62,940 to 36,009 -- so people are finding it easier to get to the polls and take advantage of it."

While ballot counts are still unofficial for a few more days, no one is expecting a surge of late-arriving mail-in ballots. So it's unlikely the turnout rates in Kane and McHenry counties, which are below 10 percent, will rise.

Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham had expected a low turnout before the election, but even he was surprised to see less than 10 percent of registered voters show up to the polls. That's despite more contested races on the ballot this go-round than in 2017, according to election data.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Most of these races, there's just not much interest in them," he said last week.

Even races that did attract interest from voters still had trouble luring large numbers to the ballot box.

In Lisle, contested races for village board, park district board and school board as well as a ballot question that would have lowered property taxes for residents by decreasing the school district's levy were all hot topics in town. Still, less than a third of the village's registered voters showed up, according to elections results. The tax reduction was defeated, and school board incumbents were re-elected.

"We knew with everything going on there would be more voters than usual, so we did work very hard to get our message out. I don't think there was one door in town that wasn't knocked on at least once by both sides," said Lisle Unit District 202 board President Meg Sima, who was not up for re-election Tuesday. "The people who come out and vote have a vested, strong interest in the results. And the 69 percent that didn't vote, I'd like to think, are pretty satisfied with how they're represented."

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