Illinois special interests seize power through low voter turnout

Illinois special interests seize power through low voter turnout

Illinois mandates off-year municipal elections, but they result in lower voter turnout that gives powerful special interest groups more influence and diminishes local voters’ concerns.

As Illinois’ 2022 elections approach, voters are gearing up to cast their ballots in what is predicted to be one of the most competitive state primaries in the past 24 years. This is good news for democracy, because a higher number of candidates invariably grants voters more avenues to express their political beliefs.

However, this competition cannot be found across all of Illinois’ elections. Illinois has a history of downplaying the importance of municipal elections by placing them in odd-numbered years, thereby granting special interest groups greater control over local policy issues.

An off-cycle or off-year election occurs when a state allows municipal elections to take place at a different time than national contests (either presidential or midterm elections). The shifted timing of off-cycle elections harms turnout because voters are less likely to head to the polls if they perceive the ballot questions to be less important than those of general elections.

Illinois, which mandates off-year municipal elections, has seen the effects of this problem year after year. For example, in Chicago’s February 2019 municipal election, voter turnout was 35.45%. The following year’s general election, which coincided with the 2020 presidential election, had a voter turnout of 73.28%.

The lack of voter turnout during municipal elections enables special interest groups to seize power over Illinois’ municipalities. One study conducted by the American Political Science Review found off-cycle elections are historically associated with an increase in the salaries of public employees. This is because pro-union organizations tend to dominate during periods of lower voter turnout because of less competition from the public. In Chicago, the teachers union endorsement tends to guarantee who is in charge of the school board simply because few citizens are engaged with municipal elections.

Perhaps even worse, off-year elections tend to see reduced minority participation and less inclusive voting demographics. One study conducted by the American Political Science Review found the share of Hispanic voters is 7% lower in off-year than on-year elections. Similarly, Asian Americans experience less representation during off-cycle elections.

The upcoming vote on Amendment 1 makes it more clear than ever that going out to cast your ballot matters. Bills such as Amendment 1 are funded and supported by unions which take advantage of periods of low voter turnout. Although the Amendment 1 vote is during this year’s on-cycle election, voters should be aware of future bills pushed by special interest groups during municipal elections.

One step Illinois voters can take to root corruption out of Illinois politics and counter the drop-off in participation in off-year elections is to register to vote by mail. In all future general and primary elections, Illinois has passed a law that guarantees the ability to permanently register to vote by mail. Doing so would increase voter turnout during municipal elections to counterbalance the influence of political interest groups that rely on low turnout.

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