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Voter apathy or disenchantment?



As Campaign 90 is drawing to a close, one suspects that few Illinoisans will lament its passing.

Election officials predict that more than a million voting-age residents will stay away from the polls on November 6, just as they have been doing for years. Traditionally, the droves of no-shows are attributed to voter apathy; many people either forget or just don't bother to register, and many registered voters are just too busy on Election Day.

After enduring another Illinois election cycle, however, one suspects that what's occurring might be precisely the opposite of apathy, which the dictionary says is a lack of interest or an absence of passion. Instead, nonvoters may well have intense feelings about the campaign and the candidates, but the emotion at work is disgust.

Even such an enthusiastic and upbeat campaigner as state Comptroller Roland W. Burris, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, is not immune to what one senses is a pervasive dissatisfaction about our electoral process. "Campaigns are too long, too costly, and are getting dirty," Burris told Statehouse reporters several weeks back.

Those three elements length, cost and negative tone are not unrelated. The state's protracted campaign season inevitably drives up costs, most of which are covered by raising huge sums of money from special interest groups. That, in turn, provides ample fodder for hired mudslingers to do their dirty work (being paid, of course, with dollars given their clients by other special interests).

Campaign contributions and negative attacks have become intertwined. In this year's U.S. Senate race, for example, the Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Lynn Martin, sought to besmirch Sen. Paul Simon's reputation for integrity by seizing upon newspaper reports that the Democratic incumbent made phone calls on behalf of campaign contributors to a savings and loan administrator and to a federal education official. Roger Ailes, Martin's media consultant, even labeled Simon "slimy" and a "weeny." Not only is that like being called ugly by a toad, but later stories disclosed that Martin made similar calls for contributors.

A good argument can be made, of course, that part of an elected official's job description is to represent the folks back home, and most successful legislators at the federal and the state levels pay close attention to constituent services. Not surprisingly, a voter who's received such help feels kindly toward the lawmaker, perhaps even to the point of making a campaign contribution.

In like manner, under our system, Congress and the state legislatures are supposed to be the places where we can resolve our differences without taking to the streets. So it shouldn't be shocking that those with axes to grind try to elect people who represent their point of view, even to the extent of spending money to do so. That's called representative government, and for all its warts, it's the best system yet devised to enable us to live in relative harmony.

But perhaps the message nonvoters are sending is that the warts have become so unsightly that cosmetic surgery is in order. If so, the beauty treatment might include:

  Changing Illinois' primary date. If the March primary were shifted to a later date, candidates no longer would be forced to begin serious campaigning almost a year before the election. In recent years, bills for a September primary have passed the Senate but stalled in the House, where opposition has focused mainly on expected procedural headaches. Presumably, though, our election officials aren't any less intelligent than their counterparts who've solved such mechanical problems in New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin or any of the other states with September primaries.

  Imposing campaign spending limits. Does anyone seriously doubt that the electoral equivalent of the arms race has gotten

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out of hand when more than $500,000 is likely to be spent to contest the single state Senate seat now held by Democrat Patrick D. Welch of Peru? Besides the obvious salutary effect of reducing the fund-raising burden, spending caps also would tend to lessen the reliance on expensive, high-tech campaigning slick TV spots, sophisticated mass mailings, clever telemarketing techniques in favor of greater emphasis on less costly, old-fashioned methods like party organization, grassroots volunteers and personal appearances.

Restricting campaign contributions from special interest groups. Serious constitutional problems would be raised by state efforts to tell private groups the manner and the extent to which they may participate in politics. But if acceptable rules could be fashioned, including extensive disclosure, rank-and-file voters might be less apt to believe legislators are beholden to special interests.

Providing some means of identifying and correcting misleading or distorted campaign ads. Years ago, one aggrieved lawmaker unsuccessfully proposed that all candidates be required to file copies of printed materials and transcripts of radio and TV spots with the state Board of Elections or face $5,000 fines and loss of office. That degree of official government involvement probably is unwise; in any event, it would not be needed if the media did a more thoughtful job. Newspapers, radio and television could discourage negative campaigning by playing the role of truth squad, carefully examining candidate claims and charges for accuracy and fairness. That's a lot harder, of course, than covering politics like a horse race (who's ahead in the latest poll) or a tennis match (charge, return, countercharge, return) but certainly more helpful to the voter. There are no guarantees, of course, that any or all of these remedies would be a panacea to cure what ails the electoral process. Indeed, some might even question whether any change is warranted. The risk in arguing for the status quo, however, is that as voter disenchantment continues to grow, so, too, will the number of citizens who simply stay home on Election Day, and that carries ominous implications for those who would govern.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun Times.

November 1990/Illinois Issues/9

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