With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting gatherings, the League of Women Voters of McHenry County sought to make their candidate forums and other election events more convenient, the chapter president said.
The group received a lot of feedback and saw a lot of reposting of the content on their Facebook, Catherine Williams said, but added that it is difficult to say why this didn’t translate to a higher voter turnout.
“It’s historically been low,” Williams said. “I’ve always, always tried to emphasize that local elections probably matter the most to the day-to-day voter.”
Voter turnout in the April 6 consolidated election came in at 9.52% countywide, as it has been in past years, according to McHenry County Clerk’s Office data. Some precincts saw less than 2% turnout.
While turnout in some precincts reached just more than 28%, the overall number of people who voted this year dismayed some elected officials and candidates.
Crystal Lake Mayor Haig Haleblian, who won his election, called the county’s voter turnout rate “extremely disappointing.”
“Nine percent of the public had an interest in an election that affects them the most,” Haleblian said. “People either don’t know or they don’t care. As much as we try to put the information out there and get people energized and involved, it just seems to be, unfortunately, the way things are going these days.”
Voter participation in local elections typically isn’t high unless a hotly contested race or one that really touches people’s pocketbooks is on the ballot, Williams said. The league, in addition to forums, also created a voter guide that allowed people to enter their ZIP code and get a list of races and candidates in their area.
McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio said there’s less money, advertising and disputes in local elections compared to federal and state races, and many consolidated races are nonpartisan.
People might also be weary of politics, Tirio said, especially as this election comes on the heels of the highly charged November 2020 presidential election.
Another issue when it comes to elections is that it can be hard to find people to run for office, Tirio said. It can be a rough business, he said, with many risks involved.
Nearly three-quarters of McHenry County races were uncontested, with about 16% with either no candidates running or not enough to fill all the open seats, county clerk data shows.
But even when a precinct had a higher percentage of competitive races, this didn’t necessarily mean turnout was higher too.
Algonquin 37 – a narrow precinct that ran along the southwest side of South Virginia Road just south of where it meets Route 14 – had seven out of 15 races on the ballot competitive, including the Crystal Lake mayoral contest, but saw less than 2% of registered voters turn out. Just seven ballots were cast there.
Many factors determine whether voters go to the polls, Tirio said, even the weather.
As county clerk, Tirio said he has to be thoughtful of how he involves himself in elections.
“I think another way that the public shows their support is obviously voting, but also encouraging others to vote,” Tirio said. “But beyond that, I think it’s I think it really is mostly left up to the candidates to drive it.”
Campaigning, for most candidates, was different this year because of COVID-19.
“I was personally reluctant to go knock on doors, so we used electronic media far more than we would typically use in a non-COVID year,” Haleblian said.
Haleblian said he actually reached “considerably more” people through social media than he normally would have.
“We got a lot of activity off of Facebook, and that certainly helped us address issues,” Haleblian said. “But in the long run, when you only have a few thousand people voting in a community of 40,000 it’s a little disheartening. ... I just sensed that there was more interest in the election than what the numbers showed.”
People did show concern for various local concerns, such as development and property taxes, Haleblian said.
Jim Sisto, another candidate in the Crystal Lake mayoral race, said while reaching out to the public, he found about 50% were very informed. Others gave Sisto great ideas and questions about issues, he said.
During the April 2, 2019, consolidated election when Mayor Aaron Shepley was running for reelection, 2,174 votes were cast in the Crystal Lake mayoral election, compared to the 3,417 votes cast in this election when three candidates vied to fill out the remainder of Shepley’s term.
“This is a 57% increase in voters,” former Crystal Lake mayoral candidate Donald Kountz said. “When I compare this to every election for Crystal Lake mayor since 2003, every contested election has had a higher turnout than when the incumbent runs unopposed. Having a choice is always good for citizens. I am proud to have offered citizens a choice.”
Sisto said he is happy with the turnout in this particular race. If another thousand people voted, Sisto thinks the results would have been similar.
However, Sisto said he did originally think that McHenry County as a whole would have seen higher turnout, especially just coming off a federal election with huge participation.
While he said voting on a municipal level doesn’t necessarily affect public policy at the federal or state level, Sisto said “we need to make a difference as opposed to just sitting on our hands.”
As a candidate, Haleblian said, it’s disheartening to put effort into an election campaign and to have overall low voter turnout.
“I’m the son of immigrants, and my parents always said we came over here to make a better life for our family and our children,” said Haleblian, who said he votes in every election. “It was drilled into me as a little kid that you have to vote.”
In McHenry where three of the four aldermanic races were competitive, turnout varied greatly between precincts with contested aldermanic races and those without.
The precinct with the highest turnout. with 21.6% of registered voters casting ballots – a backwards L-shaped precinct situated north of Knox Park that follows Route 31 north – was where incumbent Ward 1 Ald. Vic Santi successfully ran a write-in campaign against former alderwoman Bobbi Baehne.
Santi has lived in his neighborhood for 25 years, which he said is the main precinct that came out and voted.
“A lot of it is an established demographic, people that have been living there for as long as I’ve been living there or a lot longer,” Santi said. “I’ve been able to build friendly relationships with a lot of my neighbors.”
While Santi was pleased with the turnout he received in his precinct, he was disappointed that other areas had lower turnout.
“Believe me, I knocked on those doors as many times as I knocked on the doors in my neighborhood,” he said. “And I was slightly disappointed by the turnout, but overall apathy in voter turnout showed in the whole county.”
Local elections are the “key, vital backbone” of an area to Santi.
“Where else can you pick up a phone or walk two blocks and have a conversation with an elected official?” he asked.
The 3rd Ward, where incumbent Jeffrey Schaefer lost his seat against Frank McClatchey, also saw voters come out at a somewhat higher rate.
This ward in particular has seen several controversial developments come before the council: the apartment complex on Blake Boulevard and the proposed 7-Eleven gas station at the former First MidWest Bank building downtown.
“I think the issues that Ward 3 has, including a potential development, brought voters to the polls. But just having two great candidates doing their job also brought voters to the polls,” said Sue Miller, the 7th Ward alderwoman. “When you have two great candidates out campaigning, they’re going to turn out votes, they’re going to get voters to the polls.”
Schaefer chalked his loss up to being found “guilty by association” because of the developments that affected voter opinions.
“There is nothing I can do about the timing of the developments being brought forward,” he said.
Finding a solution to low voter turnout could be difficult.
“If I ever had an answer to that, I’d be sitting on an island with an umbrella drink,” Haleblian said. “What do you do other than get the word out there, put signage up?”
Quoting former president Theodore Roosevelt, Tirio said “we are the government.”
“You think you can choose not to participate, but really, you’re just allowing others to participate on your behalf,” Tirio said.