I think that the analysts who are drawing conclusions from yesterday’s Illinois primary elections are drawing a pound of conclusions from an ounce of data. Writing at Washington Post Sean Sullivan makes comments about the governor’s race, the conundrum that will face organized labor in the fall, the absence of backlash against the Republican legislators who voted for same-sex marriage, and the yawn in House races in Illinois. Nowhere does he mention the single, critical, inescapable fact of yesterday’s primaries here: the turnout was incredibly low. It was under 10% in the city of Chicago.
I could try to explain the low turnout away any number of ways. It was a primary. It was a mid-term. In the prior three mid-term primaries turnout was 27.3% in 2010, 32.1% in 2006, and 39.8% in 2002. Whatever the reason that’s terribly, depressingly low.
I also think that it’s possible that the number of registered voters has become completely disassociated from the number of people who can be expected to vote in a primary mid-term election.
Many people mocked North Korea’s 100% vote in favor of Kim Jong-Un not long ago. In most cases Chicago’s primaries weren’t elections but affirmations. Nearly all incumbent officeholders ran unopposed. First time officeholder (second time candidate) Will Guzzardi won his race against Maria “Toni” Berrios, daughter of Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joseph Berrios, for the seat in the 39th state house legislative district. Guzzardi a 26 year old Ivy-educated former journalist ran on a progressive platform with the support of organized labor.
But the turnout was low there, too. Rather than drawing conclusions about an anti-incumbent sentiment, an anti-machine sentiment, or the rise in progressives in Chicago politics, the only conclusion that’s really supported by the evidence is that when the turnout is low anything can happen.
I’m exhausted today. I rose at 1:00am yesterday morning (courtesy of an elderly dog with dementia), arrived at the polling place where I had my election judge assignment, and returned home around 9:00pm. Voters expressed plenty of anti-incumbent sentiment but those were only the most disaffected voters.
Why the low turnout? I mentioned some of the reasons above but IMO there are a couple of other reasons worth mentioning. It might be that the torrent of negative ads have finally discouraged voters to the point where they don’t even bother to turn out for elections. The prevailing wisdom is that negative ads don’t suppress turnout but they do produce a sense of futility.
That’s the real message, the real conclusion. In Chicago the voters think that voting is futile.