In June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed what he called landmark legislation that expanded the use of curbside and mail-in voting, made Election Day a state holiday in 2022 and more. “The legislation I’m signing today further expands access to the ballot box—ensuring all Illinoisans’ voices are heard,” he declared. But what good is increased ballot
In June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed what he called landmark legislation that expanded the use of curbside and mail-in voting, made Election Day a state holiday in 2022 and more. “The legislation I’m signing today further expands access to the ballot box—ensuring all Illinoisans’ voices are heard,” he declared.
But what good is increased ballot access when there are no choices to vote on?
For millions of Illinoisans, casting a vote for state representatives provides no clear benefit. According to State Board of Elections data, approximately half of all state House of Representative races were uncontested between 2012 and 2020.
Choice matters. The presence of only one candidate on the ballot left an average of 4.7 million voting-age Illinoisans who lived in those districts with no choices in elections that affect nearly every aspect of how they live life.
As states around the country grapple with election rules, this lack of choice in Illinois has created a voting crisis that must be addressed. When politicians can manipulate the boundaries of election maps to selectively benefit partisans, it discourages potential challengers from running.
Just look at what happened under the most recent district map, which was signed into law on June 3, 2011. On average for the following decade, gerrymandered maps contributed to just one choice on the ballot in half the districts. The worst instance was the 2016 general election, where 67 of 118 House races had only one candidate.
Voter participation is significantly higher in House races that have multiple candidates on the ballot, by about 7 percentage points, according to recent analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute. And the same phenomenon has been reported across the nation: As the number of candidate options increases, so too does participation.
The reason is easy to understand. Voters benefit from being able to choose among clearly differentiated options and have more reason to show up when their own policy preferences are reflected on the ballot.
Across the state, this lower voter participation in uncontested races translates to roughly 1.7 million “missing votes” since 2012. In 2020 alone, an estimated 270,000 fewer Illinoisans cast a ballot in uncontested house districts.
Low voter engagement hurts all Illinoisans and especially the poor, with whom participation already lags. Lawmakers are more likely to prioritize special interest groups when citizens aren’t engaged. Voiceless voters can’t influence policy or hold bad actors accountable. That’s why research shows more competitive elections reduce levels of public corruption.
Decisions in favor of the powerful and well connected come at the expense of the state’s neediest residents and its middle class. Illinois’ finances are an illustrative example. From 2000 to 2021, Illinois spending on public sector pensions has skyrocketed more than 533%. Meanwhile, spending on core government services—such as public health and anti-poverty programs—has decreased by 14%. Lawmakers voted to hike income taxes several times over the decade to fund the growing pension debt that threatens both the state’s coffers and government workers’ retirement security. Those tax dollars aren’t being invested in ways that benefit regular Illinoisans, and voter suppression through gerrymandering is a big reason why.
Independently drawn maps that enhance electoral competition would have gone a long way toward encouraging more candidates to run for Statehouse races and ultimately more voter engagement. But despite repeated promises not to, Pritzker signed into law another decade’s worth of gerrymandered maps earlier last month.
As dozens of lawsuits unfold against the maps, a more pressing question must be answered: What can be done to combat the lack of choice at the polls? Could efforts be made to educate and help candidates access the ballot?
Imagine competition in every Statehouse election driving up voter engagement and participation, particularly in areas that have historically just seen one option.
The results would be a state government that truly represents the interests of the people who live here.
Orphe Divounguy is chief economist for the Illinois Policy Institute. Adam Schuster, senior director of budget and tax research for the Illinois Policy Institute, contributed to this column.