Census: Wealthy residents more likely to vote in local elections

News-DemocratMarch 17, 2014 

Wealthy residents in St. Clair and Madison counties are more likely to cast a ballot in local elections, according to a comparison of Census data and county voter records.

The average household income of voters most likely to cast a ballot in local elections is $30,000 more than others in St. Clair County. A similar trend was found in Madison County but to a lesser degree.

The poorest townships in both counties, East St. Louis Township in St. Clair County and Venice Township in Madison County, had some of the lowest voter turnouts.

The apathy in those townships may illustrate the broader issue of disenfranchised voters in low-income households, according to Laurie Rice -- associate professor in the department of political science at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. Rice is also the coordinator for SIUE's Civic Education Project, which works with different community groups to encourage civic participation.

"If you think about it, politicians pay attention to groups they know vote in high numbers. If there are big differences in people's issue positions based on income, the more wealthy people vote, the more outcomes tend to reflect their views. But also elected officials have incentive to pay more attention to those groups," Rice said. "You can end up with these cycles of people in poverty feeling like their voice doesn't matter, so they don't vote, so politicians don't pay attention to them. Breaking that cycle is important."

Only six of the 22 townships in St. Clair County saw more than a third of eligible voters cast a ballot in the most recent election in April 2013. Those townships, excluding one, also have some of the highest average household incomes in the county, according to county voter records and the results of a five-year survey on income from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The townships of O'Fallon, Prairie Du Long, Smithton, Fayetteville, Englemann and Stites had voter turnout between 37 and 45 percent. Incomes in those townships ranged on average between $70,000 to $105,000 except for Stites Township, which had an average household income of about $28,900. However, the township's 261 votes did not significantly lower the average income of the group's total 9,324 votes.

The average household income of each voter in those six townships was about $90,300. The county's remaining townships, with turnout rates ranging between about 9 and 33 percent, averaged about $60,200 in household income per voter.

Rice said the local findings mirror a nationwide gap in voter turnout based on income, education and age.

Voters in struggling communities have a "huge potential to make a difference," Rice said. "Unfortunately, in many struggling communities the reason people don't participate is they feel like their vote doesn't matter, they can't make a difference."

Madison County

Voter turnout in Madison County followed the same trend as neighboring St. Clair County, according to the county's most recent available voter turnout records from 2012. However, the difference in household incomes in Madison County townships was not nearly as stark as in St. Clair County. Consequently, the average income of those most likely to vote was about $6,100 higher than others in the county.

Even so, the townships with the highest voter turnout (more than 20 percent) also had some of the highest household income. And townships with the lowest average household incomes had the lowest voter turnout.

Venice Township had the lowest voter turnout with about 12 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot. The township also had the lowest average household income with about $39,900.

John Hamm III, a Democratic precinct committeeman in the township, said the low turnout was likely because the ballot did not have any city races in Venice. The only local races for Venice residents in 2012 were for countywide seats, such as chairman of the Madison County Board.

Voter turnout is greater when a mayoral or aldermanic seat is contested, Hamm said.

Hamm, who is also the director of the Madison County Housing Authority, said he believed it was more difficult for voters who struggle financially to make it to the polls. The Housing Authority helps low-income residents receive affordable housing.

"With the economy the way it is now, people are sometimes working two jobs and can't get to the polls," Hamm said. "Or they may have to watch the kids. Early voting may change those numbers, but for these guys and gals who work two jobs the time to get to the polls is a pretty tight schedule. And if you do get there, the line may go beyond closing time."

Voter apathy spans spectrum

Household income is an overarching factor in whether a voter will cast a ballot in a local election, but it is not the only factor.

East St. Louis and Shiloh Valley townships are near polar opposites when comparing residents' income, urban or rural living and community diversity. Yet the voters in those St. Clair County townships are alike in their apathy for local elections, according to county records of the last election in April 2013.

The two townships had the lowest voter turnout in St. Clair County in the election, which featured races determining township, city and school leaders.

Only 9.5 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Shiloh Valley Township in the election. Likewise, 13 percent of registered voters in East St. Louis cast a ballot during that election.

Increasing voter turnout may be as simple as reaching out, Rice said.

"Simple things can make big difference," Rice said. "Sometimes the reason people don't vote is nobody asked them too. Nobody talked about why it might matter. Peer pressure, both positive and negative, can have a pretty big impact on why people vote."

Voter turnout is historically less in local elections than federal elections. For example, 63 percent of eligible voters in East St. Louis cast a ballot in the last Presidential election in Nov. 2012.

Rice said local elections tackle issues important to residents and their vote "could make a difference."

"Where we rarely see presidential election come down to a couple hundred votes, it is very common in local elections," Rice said. "In those elections many more occasions find one vote or a few dozen votes making the difference. Local leaders handle things people really care about. Whether it is making decisions effecting property values or public safety."

ELECTION DAY INFORMATION

Tuesday is primary election day. Voters will cast ballots for sheriff in St. Clair and Madison counties, the 13th Congressional District, and governor, along with a host of referendums, including expansion of the St. Clair County Jail and the future of Grant School District 110.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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