The best political campaigns generally have two components: A good candidate with a strong message, and a solid organization that takes the candidate and the message to the voters, hoping they’ll cast an affirming ballot.
Civic campaigns, including the fight for better government, also have to be waged on two fronts to be successful.
Watchdogs like the Better Government Association can urge public officials to manage our hard-earned tax dollars honestly and efficiently, which we relentlessly do in a variety of ways.
But citizens have to do their part by paying attention to the issues and voting for candidates who serve the public, not themselves.
Unfortunately, too many Illinois residents are disengaged from the process, and we’re paying a high price for that — literally — in wasted and misdirected tax dollars.
Illinois has 8.9 million voting-age residents, but only 7.5 million have bothered to register or vote in any recent election.
That leaves 1.4 million, or 15 percent, sitting on the sidelines, either unregistered or inactive.
Compounding the problem is abysmally low turnout among voters who are registered. The March primary was the worst in Illinois history, a paltry 18 percent, and only half the registered voters cast a ballot in the gubernatorial election four years ago.
Slacker citizens rightly deserve much of the blame for those dismal figures, but another culprit is an election system filled with disincentives to engage.
There’s a woeful lack of competition — too many uncontested races with only one candidate running unopposed — because the system is set up to favor incumbents and discourage challengers.
Access to campaign cash is a big issue, but not the only one.
Many officeholders sit on election boards with the power to keep potential opponents off the ballot for bogus reasons — that’s a conflict, and it’s wrong — and many legislative districts are gerrymandered to give one party such an overwhelming advantage the other party doesn’t even field a candidate.
Reform groups have been trying to depoliticize the redistricting process, and that effort will continue, and voting rights activists claim 100,000 new registrations in recent months — an impressive figure and an encouraging development.
So, yes, there are wisps of reform in the air, and even the Legislature has taken several steps that make it easier to participate this year:
- Early voting is extended by several days.
- You can actually register and vote on Election Day, November 4.
- And college students will be able to cast absentee ballots on their campuses.
History suggests the changes will increase voter turnout.
In 2012 it was 12.5 points higher in the nine states with Election Day registration, and a longer early voting period generally attracts additional participation.
Conversely, some attribute turnout drops in Ohio and Florida that same year to shortened early voting periods.
So how do we maintain the reform momentum? Options worth considering include:
Making Election Day registration and extended early voting permanent, and even easier; pursuing new campaign finance and redistricting initiatives; and reconfiguring election boards to eliminate conflicts and increase competition.
But let’s face it — at the end of the day, it still comes down to John and Jane Q. Public.
None of the reforms or civic initiatives can accomplish much if regular citizens don’t use the power of the ballot box intelligently.
So if you’d like information and links to local election authorities, steps for validating registration, and locations in Chicago and suburban Cook County where you can register and vote between now and Election Day, check out our “BGA Voters’ Guide” at bettergov.org.
Good government is our right — we’re entitled to it — and the BGA will keep fighting for it 24/7.
But we can’t win the battle without an army of informed and engaged voters.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.