JOLIET — The choice for Joliet's next mayor was in the hands of 13,983 voters — in a city comprised of 148,000.
It's a situation hardly unique to Joliet or to the region, with voter participation ranging from 11 to 18 percent across neighboring counties in the April 7 election. About 58,000 of Will County's 393,000 registered voters cast a ballot in Tuesday's election.
Unofficial results show the county had a disappointing 14.92 percent turnout — even with early voting options, extended hours, and a rising number of registered voters in Will County, Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots said Thursday.
“I take it personally," Schultz Voots said. "I care about the election. I go on the radio. I talk to newspapers just so people know the importance of voting. It was different years ago. Maybe they didn't get the newspaper. Maybe they didn't listen to the radio. Now we have websites. We have a voter information guide. There's no excuse.”
Late mail and provisional ballots still need to be counted, but Schultz Voots said there's so few that she doesn't expect it to significantly affect overall turnout. This year's participation compares to the 18.9 percent turnout in the 2011 consolidated election and 18.2 percent in 2009.
Turnout varies among precincts
In Joliet's mayoral election, City Councilman Bob O'Dekirk unseated Tom Giarrante after months of campaigning.
O'Dekirk ended up garnering 52 percent of the vote to Giarrante's 39 percent. A third challenger — Joliet Junior College Board President Andy Mihelich — received less than 9 percent.
Turnout for the mayoral race was as low as 0.6 percent at a polling place in Romeoville and as high as 49.5 percent in one Joliet precinct near Black Road and Larkin Avenue.
John Sheridan, a facilitator with the Cunningham Neighborhood Council who campaigned for O'Dekirk, said the low turnout is an insult to the hard work put into the campaign. He said he and supporters walked precinct after precinct, passing out campaign literature and making issues known.
"It's sad to see because everybody worked so hard. [Giarrante] worked hard, too," Sheridan said. "The problem with today's society is, until the knock is at your door, and it affects you personally, you wear blinders."
The day after Tuesday's election, Sheridan said he posted on Facebook a note that he would work with the City Council to pass an ordinance that taxes all non-voters in the city. And that tax would pay for all the wish-list projects voters want to see happen in Joliet.
"Now, that was a joke," Sheridan said. "But let's face it. We can't make it any easier. There's absentee voting. There's in-person voting. We need to think outside the box."
He said he believes the Rialto marquee controversy helped motivate the few people who made it to the polls.
"The Rialto group probably influenced the outcome," he said. "They were anti-Giarrante."
Elsewhere in the county, towns with contested races or key referendums — such as in Homer Glen and Shorewood— drew more attention.
Just 233 votes separated 2,563 Shorewood voters over a referendum determining whether the village should receive home rule powers. Unofficial vote tallies show that 1,398 voted in favor of the referendum, while 1,165 voted against. The vote allows the village to gain home rule taxing authority if the results hold up, allowing it to replace a 1 percent non-home rule sales tax with a 1.75 percent home rule sales tax, generating about $1.5 million annually in revenue.
Turnout fared better than usual in Homer Glen's contested race for mayor, village clerk and trustees. Participation averaged about 30 percent, giving mayor-elect George Yukick, who began as a write-in candidate in the February primary after being kicked off the ballot, an edge over incumbent Jim Daley Jr.
Greatest influence on tax dollars
Voter apathy is a complex issue, said Warren Dorris, a prominent African-American pastor and Giarrante supporter who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2011.
Turnout was abysmally low on the city's East Side, where neighborhoods are predominantly made up of low-income households, he said. But certain pockets fared well in Joliet City Council District 4, he said, where Councilwoman Bettye Gavin won by a 36-vote margin.
With a spike in gang violence since the holiday season, Dorris said he's saddened more people didn't turn out to the polls.
"I think people are lazy. If they could recognize that they can have more of an impact on community by voting like they do in the presidential election, they would realize they could control every election," Dorris said. "But for some reason, when it comes to voting in local elections, people just don't have interest.”
Local elections, by far, have the greatest influence on property tax bills, policies regarding education, and offerings at park districts, public works, and police and fire services, yet people sit on the sidelines year after year, Dorris said.
Dorris pointed to his time as a Joliet City Council member as an example.
“When I was on the City Council, on a Tuesday night we could pass an ordinance if we could get the majority of nine people and it would go into effect tomorrow," he said. "[In the U.S. House of Representatives] you've got 435 people and nothing ever gets done.”
Voter turnout was lower this year than in previous local election years – yet more people in Will County were registered to vote. About 393,000 people were registered in this election, compared to the 388,057 people registered during the hotly contested governor's race in November.
It's unclear where things fall apart, Dorris said. Residents are willing to register, but only a few follow through all the way to the polls.