Voters in Illinois have been presented with few choices when it comes to who will represent them in the Statehouse, but 2022 looks like the year that could change with 82 contested races projected to bring out 4.3 million voters – the most in decades.
During the past 22 years, on average only 64 of Illinois’ 118 Statehouse districts have been contested by a candidate from each major party. With roughly half of Illinoisans living in districts that featured only one major party candidate on the ballot each election cycle – usually the incumbent – voter turnout in uncontested districts has been markedly lower than in districts where voters had choices.
In 2018, the most recent non-presidential election cycle, voter turnout was a measly 38.2% of the voting-age population on average in uncontested districts compared to a 47.8% average in districts with more candidates on the ballot. No choice means voters don’t bother to show up at the polls.
That’s common sense, but research also shows as the number of candidates increases, voter participation increases. Voters benefit from having clear options on Election Day, and having a choice in their elected leaders gives them a reason to come to the polls. Individuals whose preferences do not resonate with the positions of any of the candidates on the ballot are more likely to stay home.
Fortunately for many Illinois voters, 2022 is projected to feature the highest number of contested Statehouse races in at least the past 24 years. An estimated 82 races are expected to be contested.
During the past 24 years, the previous high-water mark for contested races was 80 back in 2002. The number of contested races bottomed out in 2016, when voters had a choice in only 51 races. For the 2022 election, 58 districts currently have registered candidates from each major party, a result of ongoing candidate recruitment by nonpartisan Illinois Policy – an effort to bolster choices and therefore voter turnout.
On average during the past 10 years, an additional 19 races have become contested after primary season when major parties slate their candidates ahead of the general election. Then, an additional five districts identified from Illinois Policy’s candidate recruitment process are estimated to become contested as part of the slating process. The total expected number of contested races for the 2022 election cycle is 82, the highest in recent history.
More Statehouse races can also be expected to boost voter turnout. Previous analysis identified a 7 percentage point difference in voter participation rates in contested Illinois Statehouse races relative to uncontested races, even after controlling for factors such as the demographic composition of districts and income levels. If this relationship holds, the increase in the number of Statehouse races can be expected to yield an additional 82,125 votes from individuals who would have otherwise not participated in the election process. In total, the number of ballots cast could reach 4.3 million, the highest tally for a non-presidential year in recent history.
The 2022 election will provide real choice for 1.2 million Illinoisans who otherwise would have only had one option on their ballots.
Many theories of democracy emphasize voters reward or punish elected officials by extending or ending their political careers. If many representatives run unopposed and voter participation isn’t widespread, government accountability can be undermined. Choice in elections also matters because evidence suggests uncontested and lightly contested elections tend to skew policy in favor of powerful special-interest groups at the expense of everyone else. This is because low voter participation makes legislators more susceptible to the influence of lobbyists rather than prioritizing service to constituents.
The majority of Statehouse districts in Illinois that have traditionally been uncontested are within or contain parts of the city of Chicago. Traditionally uncontested House districts are defined as those in which three of the past five election cycles did not feature more than one candidate. Thirty-three of the 57 historically uncontested districts are in Chicago, while 10 are in the collar county area. Only 14 come from downstate Illinois.
Among non-Chicago districts, there are relatively few discernable differences between the voter population in contested and uncontested districts. There exist large differences between Chicago districts that are traditionally contested and those traditionally uncontested.
Demographically, there are major discrepancies in which Chicagoans live in historically contested and uncontested Statehouse districts. Historically uncontested districts have more than twice the share of Black and Hispanic residents. While nearly 62% of the population in historically contested districts is white non-Hispanic, 65% on the population in historically uncontested districts identify as non-white or Hispanic.
The differences in the race and ethnicity of those living in contested or uncontested districts reveals an unfortunate truth in Illinois politics: minority Chicagoans typically don’t get a choice in who represents them in the state legislature. Even when accounting for primary elections, incumbents in historically uncontested Chicago districts face no primary challengers from their districts the vast majority of the time.
There are also concerning differences in economic and educational outcomes between districts in Chicago. Uncontested districts tend to have much lower levels of educational attainment, incomes and home values, while battling much higher instances of poverty and unemployment than those living in contested districts.
The median home value in contested Chicago Statehouse districts is $348,916, or 41% higher than the $246,637 seen in uncontested districts. Differences in per capita income follow similar trends, with income per person being 36% higher in contested districts.
The differences in educational attainment are even more extreme: 49% of those in contested districts have at least a bachelor’s degree, while only 33% in uncontested districts have a four-year degree – a 46% difference. Lastly, voter turnout is substantially higher in contested districts, with 47% of eligible voters participating in the 2018 election in contested districts, 36% higher than the 34% of voters participating in uncontested districts.
Poorer economic outcomes also leave uncontested districts grappling with much more severe instances of unemployment and poverty. Workers in uncontested districts were 67% more likely to be unemployed than workers in contested districts, with average unemployment rates of 8.5% and 5.1% respectively from 2015-2019. There are 16.5% of residents in uncontested districts living at or below the poverty line, 53% more than residents of contested districts where the figure is 10.8%.
Low voter participation, which tends to be a larger issue in low-income areas, means the interests and policy preferences of low-income residents – who need public services the most – aren’t necessarily represented in legislators’ policy decisions. Research shows socioeconomic status is related to voting participation and other forms of civic engagement. Individuals with lower levels of formal educational attainment – lower income and more scarce financial resources – are consistently less likely to vote (see Davenport, 2010, for a complete review of the academic literature). Even when controlling for these factors, voter participation is 7 percentage points lower than in similar contested districts. Even if representatives do not act on the direct demands of disadvantaged constituents, higher participation rates can alter the composition of government and thereby influence policy outcomes.
Fiscal policy decisions made by state lawmakers during several decades have skewed outcomes in favor of the powerful and well connected at the expense of the state’s neediest residents and its middle class. From fiscal year 2000 to 2021, Illinois spending on pensions for government workers skyrocketed more than 533%. Spending on a range of core government services such as public health and anti-poverty programs shrank by 14%. Illinois’ public pension benefits are far more generous than retirement systems for private sector Illinoisans, with the average career worker collecting more than $2 million in retirement after covering only about 5-6% of the cost while working. Tax hikes to fund pensions have hit Illinoisans of all income levels.
There is hope. The 2022 election is shaping up to be one of the most competitive Statehouse election cycles in decades. More races are expected to be contested this year than at any time during the past 24 years. There will be 1.2 million Illinoisans who didn’t have a choice in the 2018 election who will have more than one major party candidate from which to choose.
An increase in the number of Statehouse races with multiple candidates will likely make state lawmakers more accountable to their communities. That will ensure Illinois’ most vulnerable communities have truer representation in Springfield.
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