Few voters decide fate of most ballot questions, study shows

Voting in the Consolidated Election at the Downers Grove Township offices polling place on Tuesday, April 3. 2023.

For every voter who cast a ballot last April to decide the fate of Batavia Unit District 101′s request to borrow $140 million to rebuild and renovate multiple schools, two other voters stayed home.

Just 34% of the district’s 22,291 eligible voters cast a ballot on the measure last year, election records show.

But a Daily Herald analysis of vote totals for 22 ballot questions posed to suburban voters in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties last April showed District 101′s turnout was the highest of those initiatives. Fifteen of the 22 were decided by less than a quarter of the eligible voters, including four that were decided by less than 10% of eligible voters, records show.

Among those 22 suburban ballot questions, 14 failed. Of the eight approved, seven allowed taxing bodies to raise taxes or borrow millions of dollars.

Now, a study by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas indicates most of the ballot questions posed to voters there were decided by less than a quarter of eligible voters between 2020 and 2023.

“Voters are given the power to make these key decisions, but most don’t bother to vote,” Pappas said. “And when their taxes go up, they are the first to complain.”

The study showed that 75 property tax-related questions posed to voters during that time were decided by less than a third of those eligible to cast ballots.

Pappas said she is troubled by the fact that low turnout allows “a small group of motivated voters to hold sway over” other taxpayers’ wallets.

Ryan Tolley, executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for ethical government and elections, said taxing bodies are deliberate about when they decide to pose questions to voters that could affect their property tax bills.

“They’re thinking about it strategically by putting them in an election when voter turnout is traditionally low,” he said. “Low voter turnout is often advantageous to them at the ballot box.”

Because voter turnout is traditionally highest for presidential elections, many taxing bodies try to avoid posing expensive ballot questions to voters then. Instead, they rely on voter apathy during local elections in odd-numbered years, nonpresidential general elections or primaries like the one coming up in a few days.

Tuesday, more than a dozen ballot questions will be posed to suburban voters with local governments asking for authority to borrow more money or increase taxes.

“I urge voters to get out and vote, and also to not skip the referendum questions lower on the ballot so these issues can truly be determined by a majority and not by a few,” Pappas said.

Jake Griffin Daily Herald Media Group

Jake Griffin is the assistant managing editor for watchdog reporting at the Daily Herald