Chicago’s political groundhog woke up to see its shadow giving us six more weeks of campaigning. The race for mayor, and alderman in a surprising 19 wards, will now be decided on April 7. This is the first time the city will see a runoff race for mayor since non-partisan elections commenced in 1999.
A sad fact of this election is that a paltry 34% of the Chicago-electorate turned out to vote. One wonders how, given the challenges faced by this city, so few people voted. The city is awash in red; both ink and blood. Is there a relationship between low voter turnout and the sorry state of our finances, schools and levels of crime and violence? I think there is. Is there a relationship between how this campaign was run and the embarrassing level of voter turnout? I think there is.
Chicago’s voters and elected officials are responsible for the current state of affairs.
Elections are fundamental to our system of government. Voting is the easiest act of citizenship we have. With early voting and the recent addition of Election Day registration it’s getting even easier. Elections are times when candidates should put their ideas on the table and engage in vigorous debate. There was far too little of this in the lead-up to yesterday’s election. Our candidates did a poor job of engaging the electorate and the voters responded by staying home.
Low voter turnout is a simple measure of our civic health. Are people informed and engaged? Are our elected officials responsive and deserving of our respect? Are citizens discussing important issues, contacting their elected officials and volunteering? Are our institutions transparent and responsive? Some are, but far too many in this city are not. In a democracy, these things make a difference.
The runoff races are an opportunity for the city to change this dynamic. With a focused head-to-head race for mayor, Chicagoans will hopefully be given a substantive debate on the issues. Will we listen to this debate? Participate in it? Will we turn out in greater numbers to vote? And even more importantly, will we actively join with our mayor (Rahm or Chuy) and aldermen and hold one another accountable as we try to revitalize this great city? For our sake, I hope so.