Andy Shaw: Empty Voting Booths A Symbol Of Our Ailing Democracy

<p>“By any statistical measure we’re a worse democracy today than 40 or even 20 years ago.” -Dick Simpson, political scientist</p>

BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw talks about civic disengagement and recent suburban elections in his bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.


We had an election in the Chicago suburbs on April 4.

That’s not breaking news, except perhaps to 80-plus percent of the registered voters in Cook and the Collar Counties who didn’t bother to cast a ballot.

That’s four out of five potential voters who, intentionally or inadvertently, contributed to our national epidemic of civic disengagement and the weakening of an American democracy that depends on informed citizens electing good leaders.

Ladies and gentlemen: That’s a big deal.

So what’s going on?

Well, maybe some of the no-shows are simply satisfied with the way their local officials spend their tax dollars.

Perhaps they’re affluent enough to ignore or even accept the waste, inefficiency and occasional corruption in their towns and villages.

Whatever.

Other non-participants may think one vote won’t change anything—incumbent Tweedle Dee is no worse than challenger Tweedle Dum—so why bother going to a polling place?

A cynical reality.

In extreme cases, they’re so fed up with local government or so disgusted by our increasingly coarse, polarized politics that they’ve thrown in the towel.

Sad, but totally understandable.

And finally, the elections themselves, which were characterized by a woeful lack of competition.

In Cook County, 67 percent of the races, or two out of three, were uncontested—they had only one candidate—and 20 races didn’t have anyone on the ballot, according to election officials.

A Daily Herald analysis that added in the Collar Counties found only 30 percent of the races had more than one candidate, down from 45 percent eight years ago.

Former Chicago alderman and veteran UIC political scientist Dick Simpson’s take: “By any statistical measure we’re a worse democracy today than 40 or even 20 years ago.”

Spot on.

Some of the disengagement reflects personal feelings developed over time, and there’s no easy way to change that.

But other disincentives to civic participation are bi-products of our rigged election system.

It’s still too difficult for hard-working, time-challenged citizens to register, vote, get and stay on the ballot, or even contemplate running for office, and those impediments protect incumbents from challengers.

By gerrymandering the boundaries of electoral districts, letting municipal officials control their local election boards, maintaining obstacles to voter registration and voting itself, and permitting an unregulated deluge of money—much of it untraceable—to influence election outcomes, political leaders make it harder for potential challengers to run and easier for registered voters not to mark a ballot.

Fortunately there are legislative remedies designed to encourage competition and voter turnout by leveling the playing field.

Reforms worth considering include automatic voter registration, an expansion of early voting, redistricting reform, open instead of party-specific primaries in a month warmer than March, elections on weekends, more campaign finance disclosure, and a mix of public dollars and small donor matching funds to encourage people without deep pockets or special interest backing to run for office.

Those reforms threaten incumbents, including the political ruling class that controls government, so they continue to resist fundamental change.

But our democracy is at stake, and if enough regular citizens fed up with the status quo and committed to fairer elections and better government join the fight for responsible reforms we can get it done.

Americans rose up to evict the British; end slavery, sweatshops and child labor; empower women; and enact civil and gay rights.

I view the challenges and opportunities I’ve laid out in this column as a new battleground, and one of this generation’s most important ones.