With COVID, contested races, League of Women Voters works hard to reach electorate
If you asked League of Women Voters members their ultimate goal, they would likely say 100% voter turnout.
Heidi Graham, president of the League's Arlington Heights/Mount Prospect/Buffalo Grove chapter would settle for 75%.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Graham and her fellow League members to redouble their efforts to inform voters and boost turnout. The traditional in-person forums where candidates answered voters' questions have now migrated online and more are being held ahead of the April 6 election due to the increase in contested races.
"We're seeing many more contested races," said Roberta Borrino, president of the League's Roselle/Bloomingdale chapter, which also encompasses Hanover Park, Itasca and Medinah.
Case in point: Hanover Park trustee's race, where five candidates are vying for three seats. Borrino says she can't recall the last time the trustee race was contested.
Municipal, school, library, township, park district races, "if it's a contested election, we make every effort to have a candidate forum," Graham said. Her chapter will host 13 forums -- streamed on Facebook and YouTube -- for officially contested local elections where results are likely to have the biggest impact on voters.
"Our daily lives are governed by local politics. I turn on my water, I turn on a light, I drive my car down a road, I take my kid to school -- that's all local politics," she said.
During 2019's municipal election, 13% to 14% of eligible voters turned out in her chapter's region, which also includes Wheeling, Prospect Heights and Elk Grove Village. In Arlington Heights, turnout was about 9%, she said, adding "you're letting 9% decide your taxes."
"It's never been easier to participate," Graham said. "When so many people have so many barriers in their way ... those of us who have ability to vote should be voting better than 9%."
Online forums mean more voters have access to the candidates, said Borrino, whose group is hosting six of those events.
For example, on Feb. 28, her chapter held an online forum for Bloomingdale township board candidates. By that evening, 158 people had viewed it on Facebook. By Thursday, the number was more than 800, she said.
"As much as you miss the personal contact, the Zoom format is so much farther reaching," she said, adding that it could become another tool to accomplish League objectives.
Founded by Carrie Chapman Catt in Chicago on Feb. 14, 1920, six months before the certification of the 19th Amendment giving women the vote, the League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to eliminating voting barriers for eligible citizens.
Borrino believes a new political awareness accompanied the 2016 presidential election. That awakening, she said, was also sparked by the coronavirus pandemic which, in forcing people to stay at home, allowed them to pay more attention to local issues.
Some did more than that. For the first time in a long time, Graham said, school board elections in her region are contested and she couldn't be happier.
Contested elections, she said, make our elected officials better. And, more voters involved in the process is a good thing, she said, "not just because they're mad, not just because they're dissatisfied, but because our government needs us to step up."