Ep. 36: The truth about voter suppression in Illinois
Voters in Illinois may have same-day voter registration and vote-by-mail options, but a form of voter suppression still plagues the state: roughly half of Illinoisans have no choice when it comes to who will represent them in the Statehouse. That’s set to change in 2022 with the most competitive election in 24 years. Adam Schuster joins the Policy Shop to talk about why ballot choice is so important to democracy.
This edition of The Policy Shop is by Adam Schuster, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.
Voters in Illinois may have same-day voter registration and vote-by-mail options, but a form of voter suppression still plagues the state: many voters have no choice when it comes to who will represent them in the Statehouse. About half of all Illinois House races were uncontested during the past two decades. The good news is 2022 is expected to be the most competitive election in at least 24 years, with 82 contested races projected to bring out 4.3 million voters – a record for non-presidential elections.
Competition is good: Roughly half of Illinoisans live in districts where only one major party candidate runs for the Illinois House of Representatives each election cycle. This reduces voter turnout, because there’s little point in voting when the outcome is guaranteed. Also, voters don’t see the point when there’s no candidate who represents their views. In 2018, the most recent non-presidential election cycle, voter turnout was a measly 38.2% of the voting-age population on average in uncontested districts compared to a 47.8% average in districts with more candidates on the ballot. No choice turns a voter into a no-show.
But here’s why this really matters: lawmaker accountability. Evidence suggests uncontested and lightly contested elections tend to skew policy in favor of powerful special-interest groups at the expense of everyone else. If representatives run unopposed and voter participation isn’t widespread, lawmakers are more responsive to the influence of lobbyists than to the interests of their constituents.
The majority of Statehouse districts in Illinois that have traditionally been uncontested are within or contain parts of the city of Chicago – 33 of the 57 historically uncontested districts. The differences between contested and uncontested districts in Chicago highlight how vulnerable populations are hurt by the lack of competitive elections.
Uncontested Chicago districts have more than twice the share of Black and Hispanic residents compared to contested districts. 65% of the population in uncontested districts identify as non-white or Hispanic.
The median home value in contested Chicago Statehouse districts is $348,916, or 41% higher than the $246,637 seen in uncontested districts. Income per person is 36% higher in contested districts.
Workers in uncontested districts were 67% more likely to be unemployed, with average unemployment rates of 8.5% and 5.1% respectively from 2015-2019.
Recruiting: Illinois Policy, the Illinois Policy Institute’s advocacy partner, successfully educated and encouraged candidates interested in running for the Statehouse get on the ballot. The aim is to help end the voter suppression inherent in a system that fails to give voters choices. We helped independents, Republicans and Democrats navigate the chaotic and bureaucratic process of running for office. Below is a story of one of those candidates that shows why this initiative is so important to bringing diversity and choice to Illinois voters.
Meet candidate Alper Turan: The last time voters in Illinois House District 13 in the Lincoln Square area of Chicago had a choice on their general election ballot was in 2002. Now, for the first time in two decades, they will have a choice not only in the Nov. 8 general election for state representative but also in the Democratic primary June 28.
“In my district, our rep has been holding this seat for almost 16 years without any contest,” Turan said. “So, he would always get 100% of the votes. That’s not real voter freedom, because voters have no choice.”
“I am originally from northwest Iran, a country where you don’t have any freedom. You don’t have the freedom of speech, religion and assembly that we enjoy here. You don’t even have freedom of thought. If they find out your thoughts are not aligning with their ideology, you’ll get in trouble.”
“I’m thankful that my family has been able to pursue the American Dream, but our state has been in the wrong hands for many years, causing economic and social downfall. I don’t want my state to stay this way for my grandkids. If I can take any steps to correct the path that we’re on, I am in.”
Freedom of thought. Freedom to choose. Those denied best understand their value.