I served as an election judge last Tuesday. The County Clerk had to scramble to fill all the required positions across the wards in Jacksonville. I was placed in the Baptist church of an outlying village, along with two other judges for our district and three for a neighboring district. Polls open from 6 AM to 7 PM, so it’s a long day, with another hour of preparation and clean-up.
The day was made much longer by the sparse turnout. Nobody showed up until 10:30, six people voted in my district in total, out of a list of 720 registered voters; 14 voted in the other district.
What happened to our democratic process?
There is more trust for state government, and over 70% trust local governments to deal with local problems, a number which has barely changed over the past 40 years.
Many people vote early or by absentee ballot. Illinois has a friendly voting system: voting was allowed at the courthouse up to the day before Election Day, with registration possible that day. Republicans tried to prevent the same-day registration system, but were rejected by the state courts. A 2017 automatic voter registration law registers citizens when they interact with the Motor Vehicle Department.
So voting is relatively easy here, so that wasn’t the problem. The election was only about local offices, City Council and Board of Education. There were candidate signs out on the streets, but virtually nothing reported on television.
One of our handful of voters noted the futility of his own vote. After going over the ballot, he said to us, “This is just an exercise.” He meant that his vote didn’t matter. Our ward’s ballot had only one candidate, the incumbent, for alderman. There were four candidates for the Board of Ed for four seats. Another office had no candidate. The results were clear before Election Day.
In 2017, there were no contests for Jacksonville mayor, city clerk and city treasurer. Only 2 of 6 city council seats were contested. Most positions in the surrounding villages were uncontested. In the bigger elections of 2018, most local races were also uncontested. Running for local office doesn’t appear to interest many people.
I don’t think it’s about money. Salaries of full-time elected officials here are quite reasonable. County officials make between $60,000 and $70,000 a year. The mayor of Jacksonville earns about $100,000, the city clerk about $70,000, the city treasurer over $50,000. On the other hand, city councillors in Jacksonville receive a stipend of just a few thousand dollars a year for important part-time work.
A majority of Americans don’t trust our federal government to deal with domestic or international problems. There is more trust for state government, and over 70% trust local governments to deal with local problems, a number which has barely changed over the past 40 years.
But the trust in local government is not matched by a willingness to actively participate. The local systems, at least here in the rural Midwest, encourage inactivity. The daily Jacksonville paper published little about the recent elections beyond prepared candidate statements. Since the election, it reported on who won and lost, but printed no election results. Sample ballots, which differed for each ward, were not available online.
Because this area is dominated by Republicans, it may seem futile for challengers to run. But motivated and emboldened by the sense that local politicians, mostly Republicans, are trying to ignore the disaster in Washington that other Republicans are creating, several newcomers, some young, some not, ran for city council. Two won seats, one lost by the slimmest of margins. Along with the many newcomers to political office who won seats in Congress in November, they showed that incumbency and apathy can be defeated by hard work and a motivation to take action.
Local government impacts our lives every day through zoning, upkeep of parks, snow removal and street cleaning, care for trees, trash disposal, fire and police, and countless other tasks which allow us to go about our daily business. Running for local offices and voting are our means of insuring that we get honest and dedicated civil servants to run our communities.
Taking Back Our Lives