You know the old saying “elections have consequences?” The nation as a whole got a real life object lesson of that adage two years ago.
No doubt presidential elections are huge. That’s why those are the years where you’ll also see the largest voter turnouts.
The Cook County Clerk has helpfully compiled historical data on voter turnout going back almost 30 years, and the trends are pretty clear. People get all hopped up about presidential elections. In all but one presidential election year since 1990, more than 70 percent of registered voters in Cook County turned out to vote.
In 2016, it was 72.1 percent. The high water mark in the past three decades came in 1992, when Cook County turnout was 75.9 percent.
It’s still baffling why nearly 30 percent of registered voters sit out presidential elections, but at least the turnout makes clear that such races are important to a vast majority of people.
But where the real consequences of elections befall the citizenry – the everyday consequences of local governance and issues related to larger issues of gun safety, health insurance and voting rights – result from elections on non-presidential years, the so-called mid-term elections where we choose representatives in Congress and in state assemblies and consolidated elections, where we pick our local leaders.
Voter turnout in those elections, at least in Cook County, is shameful.
The most recent election on Nov. 6 provides an example. First, the good news. In 2018, Cook County had its highest voter turnout in a mid-term election since 1990. The bad news is that the turnout was just 55 percent. In 2014, turnout was 49.8 percent – the third lowest mid-term turnout since 1990.
The race for the U.S. 3rd Congressional District featured one candidate who is an avowed white supremacist and Holocaust skeptic with ties to neo-Nazi organizations. The turnout in that race in suburban Cook County was 52.35 percent – underperforming the election generally.
But mid-terms look like voter turnout tsunamis compared to local and primary elections. Since 1990, voter turnout for primary elections has topped 40 percent just three times and has been as low as 16 percent, in 2014.
Meanwhile, voter turnout at the most local level – the consolidated elections where we choose mayors and village presidents, village trustees, school and library boards – generate almost no interest at all.
In the 10 consolidated elections since 1999 – the consolidated election system was created by state statute in 1982 in part to increase voter turnout – voter turnout has topped out at 29 percent in 2001.
The last two consolidated elections in 2015 and 2017 were flat-out dismal in terms of turnout. The 14.2 percent of Cook County voters who turned out in 2015 set the bar for the lowest turnout since 1999, and 2017 turnout of 17.7 percent was the fourth lowest.
Mind you, these are the elections where people decide the most local of issues – the largest part of any property tax bill funds local school operations – and really affect local pocketbooks.
You’d think more people would be less comfortable with so few people making such big decisions about their lives.