Last week’s column on civic “disengagement” — my term for the millions of Illinois residents who aren’t registered to vote in Tuesday’s primary, or won’t bother to cast a ballot even if they are eligible —prompted interesting emails from readers who are definitely engaged.
One lament comes from James Byrne, who writes: “There is no real civics in this country. Don’t forget, as stated by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, more people can give you the names of the `3 Stooges’ than can name the three branches of government.”
Byrne also blames the epic lack of participation in our most basic democratic activity — voting — on the corrupting influence of money in politics, and that’s hard to argue with.
Larry Craig offers this cynical perspective: “The people you describe are people who I wish would never vote. They have a very limited understanding of what is going on, and they would most likely just vote for the person who promises them the most goodies.”
Maybe, but that’s OK — democratic participation means registering and voting, regardless of your motivation.
Tomas Revollo strikes a different chord: “The real problem is that there are so many uncontested races. How do I explain that there are really no choices to my college son and my high school daughter?”
That query prompted us look into the lack of competition for elective office — another depressing component of our dystopian democracy — and the results are shocking:
- 251 of 322 races for key non-judicial offices in the Chicago area — that’s 78 percent — are either uncontested, with only one candidate running in a Democratic or Republican primary, or one party conceding a race by not fielding a candidate.
- 7 of 8 statewide primaries for Illinois attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer.
- 15 of 24 Congressional primaries.
- 85 percent of the Illinois Senate races and 82 percent of the House contests.
- 4 major Cook County primaries — president, assessor, clerk and treasurer — where incumbent Democrats have no primary challengers or Republican opponents.
- 28 of 34 races for Cook County Commissioner.
- DuPage County, where all 4 Republican incumbents are running unopposed and Democrats are skipping 2 of the 4.
- Democrats sitting out all 3 McHenry County contests and 2 of 3 in Kane.
So why the lack of competition? David Yepsen, who runs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU in Carbondale, says: “These are pretty thankless jobs and a lot of people aren’t interested in them, and beating an incumbent is hard no matter what you’re running for.”
David Morrison, longtime policy analyst at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, blames a gerrymandered map-making process that creates one-party legislative districts.
“There is no viable way for another party to get votes in those districts,” Morrison says, “so it would be a waste of time and money to run.”
So here we are, on the eve of another primary, with:
- 2 million unregistered Illinoisans;
- Only 25 percent of those who are registered likely to actually vote;
- And those voters staring at ballots with no competition in 78 percent of the key races.
Those of us in the reform movement who preach the gospel of civic engagement obviously have a lot of work to do.
But the good news is that we’re on it.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.