Tuesday is decision day in the 500 Cook County taxing bodies that elect their leaders: municipalities; school, park and library boards; special service districts; and my favorite poster child for unnecessary bureaucratic waste — townships.
Voter turnout is expected to be low, as usual — around 20 percent — which is one measure of the sad state of democracy in the burbs, and a reminder that you can’t criticize your local government credibly if you don’t vote.
Another cause for concern is that 1,170 of the 2,000 separate election contests on the ballot — that’s 58 percent — have a single candidate running unopposed, or no candidate at all.
One reason for the lack of competition is that local election boards routinely kick challengers off the ballot for failing to meet technical filing requirements.
Some argue that would-be candidates who can’t follow basic rules aren’t fit for office and shouldn’t be on the ballot. But that claim loses merit when you consider that local election boards are, by statute, comprised of incumbent office-holders who recoil at the prospect of strong challenges to them or their political allies.
Election boards made up of mayors, village presidents, clerks, trustees and council members get to decide if their potential replacements belong on the ballot.
Ah, the beauty of our dysfunctional state laws with their endless conflicts of interest.
So every political season invariably finds challengers being tossed off ballots for reasons that range from the ridiculous to the sublime.
In North Riverside, a slate of candidates from the “Transparency & Accountability in Politics Party” is ousted because its name is six words when you count the ampersand.
State law allows only five.
And nominating petitions must be “securely bound,” so a would-be Glenview school board candidate is knocked off for submitting petition sheets without a paper clip.
Scorned challengers can appeal goofy decisions in court, but that eats up campaign time and scarce resources.
County Clerk David Orr has lobbied Springfield for years to abolish the local election boards and shift ballot access decisions to the county’s election board, which arbitrates countywide election issues and is comprised of members selected by the county clerk, the circuit court clerk and the state’s attorney.
They’re also susceptible to partisanship, but less of it since they have fewer personal ties to local races, and they’re versed in election law, not municipal politics, so their decisions are rarely overturned in court.
Unlike Berwyn, where the local election board had four of its last five ballot exclusions reversed after judicial review.
So reform should be easy, right?
C’mon, this isn’t Oz, it’s Illinois, where local politicians and their lobbyists have infinitely more clout than do-gooder David Orr. His reform proposal goes nowhere.
And he claims the stacked deck contributes to the apathy, alienation and disillusionment that drives down voter turnout and keeps people from seeking local office.
“It really sours them and their supporters on what democracy is all about,” Orr says.
OK, but how can we expect state lawmakers who can’t figure out how to clean up the pension mess, pay the bills, balance the budget or cut the waste to care about making democracy work?
It may be Civics 101, but even that’s too advanced for Springfield’s political class.
Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.