More Races, Fewer Choices
Cook County has a rich political history, to say the least. But a new analysis finds its voters don't have a lot of choices in local elections.
The Better Government Association looked at all 2,001 elected positions from 486 units of government up for election on the April 9 consolidated ballots. The BGA – a Chicago-based nonprofit that exposes problems in the public sector and proposes solutions – found that 1,110 of those positions are unopposed, and another 60 have no candidate at all.
That means more than half – 58 percent to be exact – of those 2,001 elected positions are unopposed or have no candidate.
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"This is comparable to the last consolidated election," said Gail Siegel, policy and communications director for Cook County Clerk David Orr. "In other types of elections" – for example, an election with a presidential race at the top of the ballot – "it's not nearly as likely for incumbents to not have challengers."
Consolidated elections, like the one this April, are made up of lower-profile contests like village and city positions, school boards, library boards, park district boards, and township boards. These types of elections typically draw the lowest voter turnout – just 20.8 percent in 2009 and 16.7 percent in 2011, according to statistics from the Cook County Clerk's website.
"Turnout is not as great, so margins of victory can be very slender," Siegel said.
In northwest suburban Palatine, the mayor and village board are running unopposed, and the incumbent mayor suggested that's because voters generally are happy with the direction of the community.
"The hope is that everybody's satisfied with the job we're doing as a council," said Mayor Jim Schwantz. "If people are satisfied with the way things are being run, that has a lot to do with it."
In many communities, however, the dearth of candidates also speaks to ballot access and campaign finance obstacles that many potential challengers face, as well as widespread single-party dominance that discourages competition.
The BGA's analysis also finds a correlation between income and uncontested races. Consider this – 33 of 34 village positions are uncontested in five of Cook County's wealthiest communities, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Winnetka, South Barrington and Inverness. However, in five of the county's poorest communities based on per capita income, voters have more options. Races in Robbins, Dixmoor, Cicero, Stone Park and Phoenix have 20 contested positions, and just four uncontested positions.
With more than 5.5 million people, Cook County is the largest county in Illinois. It contains Chicago, and 132 suburban municipalities.
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This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Patrick McCraney, who can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.