This election decided who controls your property taxes. Only 11% of voters showed up.

Area voters head to polls for Illinois municipal races

Southern Illinois voters turnout for municipal elections including mayor, local school boards, city councils, village boards, and park districts among other things.
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Southern Illinois voters turnout for municipal elections including mayor, local school boards, city councils, village boards, and park districts among other things.

Even though voters had the opportunity to cast ballots for city council and school board, which decide how to spend local tax dollars, St. Clair and Madison counties saw just an 11 percent turnout Tuesday at the polls.

That’s less than the voter turnout two years ago, when it was 23 to 25 percent with multiple sales tax referendums on the ballot.

The low turnout on Tuesday disappointed those in charge of running local elections.

“There’s so much work that goes into this, and it’s disheartening to me to know how hard we work for this kind of turnout,” said Madison County Clerk Debra Ming-Mendoza. “But it’s not going to deter me, it will not deter me. I will continue to do my job and make a ballot available.”

The April consolidated election, which happens every other year, decides who serves on school boards, community college boards, village boards and city councils, among other local seats. There also are candidates for library boards, park district boards and fire protection districts. There’s usually a smattering of referendums dealing with how public money is spent.

Communities with mayoral elections had a higher turnout Tuesday. In East St. Louis, where four people ran for mayor, turnout was 31 percent. Cahokia, which had a contest for village president, saw 21 percent voter turnout. Centreville had a 35 percent turnout.

St. Clair County Clerk Tom Holbrook said people who control 85 percent of residents’ property tax bills are elected in the April elections.

“You would think people would take a little bit more keener interest in it. They don’t seem to,” Holbrook said.

Candidates in these smaller races have less money to spend to get their messages out to voters, he said.

Holbrook said there have been suggestions about moving elections to Saturday to help boost turnout .

Ming-Mendoza said clerks’ offices help promote elections by doing things like printing voters guides and posting them online.

She said Tuesday’s election cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but she didn’t have a specific amount spent to have 21,640 people vote.

In St. Clair County, where 18,165 people voted, Holbrook estimated the cost at $400,000 to $500,000.

Preparation for the April election starts during the preceding August, when candidate packets are assembled so people can circulate petitions. The preparation includes making sure machines are ready, ballots are printed, and vote by mail applications are sent out. Plus, the county clerks’ offices have to pay election judges at precincts.

“Everyone can look at their property tax bill and see all the little districts that touch them with dollars, they take dollars from their pockets,” Ming-Mendoza said. “Everyone of those districts should be on a voter’s radar. Are they giving me what I need? Are they providing for me what we need? To me that’s the biggest notification. You don’t have to be a registered voter to get a tax bill. It should make people who are not registered want to get out there, get registered and have a voice in how their property taxes are being spent.”

Not enough candidates

In addition to the low turnout, signaling low voter interest, more than half of the races in Madison and St. Clair County were either uncontested or didn’t attract enough candidates to fill all the seats up for election.

The current political climate may play a role in that.

“I just don’t feel like the established parties are doing enough to nurture all of these people who are sitting out there saying ‘You know I could do that, but there’s no way I’m going to get in the middle of that and have my name drug through the mud and my family disparaged,’” Ming-Mendoza said.

The spring elections are non-partisan, meaning candidates don’t run as Democrats or Republicans, although sometimes local candidates band together to run on slates or tickets.

Consolidating school districts, reducing the need for as many school boards, wouldn’t necessarily cut taxes, Ming- Mendoza said. The districts would still need money to operate.

“There will just be fewer people making those choices for us. I don’t know if that’s bad or good,” Ming-Mendoza said.

Holbrook said that if people try to consolidate districts, there would be an uproar.

“The reason they don’t do it is people object when they try to do that,” Holbrook said of consolidating school districts or other taxing bodies. “Everyone has their fiefdom and doesn’t want to give it up.”

Holbrook said a diversity of backgrounds is important for local boards.

“You need someone who has worked in maintenance, and someone who has worked in accounting,” Holbrook said. “You need those type of people on those school boards or fire districts, as alderman, city councils, (and) townships. You need that type of diversity to have a viable government.”

Holbrook said he has tried to recruit potential candidates, but people don’t want to put themselves and their families through public ridicule and public scrutiny over a public decision.

“If people don’t want to be involved in their government, they’re going to get the government that’s given to them,” Holbrook said.

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.