Some final thoughts on the 2010 campaign season as we brace for election day and beyond:

  • The stakes couldn’t have been higher this year, with millions of Americans still hurting from the lingering effects of the economic meltdown, and many of them unconvinced the Obama administration’s on the right track;
  • Springfield inching closer every day to a fiscal meltdown, even without Blagojevich in the picture;
  • Cook County preparing for a government without a Stroger at the helm for the first time since the mid ’90’s;
  • And government at all levels still beset with too much waste, fraud, inefficiency and corruption.

So what did we get with so much at stake? An election season that produced more questions than answers, more ad hominem attacks than thoughtful position papers, and more pre-election angst about who to vote for than I’ve seen in years. When voters complain about “the lesser of two evils” or “the best of the bad choices,” you know that democracy’s taken a big hit.

We can blame some of it on the torrent of new and untraceable cash that’s been flowing into all of the states, including Illinois, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. Or consultants who decide that “going negative” and staying there gets you the best bang for the buck. Or problems that are so daunting the potential solutions are either too painful or too politically unpopular to actually consider.

Whatever the reason for the toxic tone of the campaigns, I’ll tell you one thing: I’ve rarely had less solid information to guide my choices, or less confidence in the current electoral process. I may be wrong, and I hope I am, but most of the candidates and their campaigns have been underwhelming. O Better Government, where art thou?

So what do we know about the post-election landscape? Not much, but here are a few things:

  • The winner of the U.S. Senate race will either support or oppose the Obama agenda most of the time, so this is really a de facto referendum on the President’s first two years. That’s the one factoid that survives the negative clutter.
  • The next Illinois governor will be facing the starkest set of budget choices imaginable, but I’m still waiting to see a credible plan for making those choices, and to find someone with the leadership skills to execute a grand plan.
  • As for the the next Cook County Board president, he or she will be trying to phase out an unpopular sales tax increase without decimating vital services. Good luck.

Another post-election reality is that all of the candidates for all of the offices will be under intense pressure from groups like the BGA to end pay-to-play politics, lobbying abuse, patronage and conflicts of interest; to streamline government; and to run it more transparently and efficiently.

We haven’t seen enough detailed answers to any of the major problems—fiscal or ethical—but on the positive side you can find out, to a limited extent, where candidates stand on some the issues if you take the time to pour through their websites, or some of the election sites that various media outlets have painstakingly put together. It’s time-consuming and tedious, but some of the information is available.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time. So we have to rely on televised debates that produce more heat than light, news coverage that focuses on sound bites in place of substance (I plead guilty to a lot of that over the years) and TV ads that would have you believe Candidate X’s opponent is one of the worst human beings alive. We’ve tried to elevate the discussion a bit by explaining the pros and cons of the Recall Amendment on your ballot and by providing a basic Voters Guide to the election.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gave us a few laughs over the weekend, and that’s refreshing, but otherwise it’s been a grim campaign season. If you’ve already voted early or absentee or by write-in, good—sit back and make the best of the results as they come in. And if you haven’t voted, do your civic duty: Take a few minutes to think about what’s at stake, what you believe in and who seems to represent it. Consult an information site or a savvy friend if you’re still in a quandary. And then show up at your polling place to exercise our most basic freedom, even if you’re holding your nose as you mark your ballot.