By DAVID EVERSON
Who shot the hole in the Illinois electorate?
Low turnout in the city of Chicago, especially among African Americans, cost Democrat Neil F. Hartigan the 1990 governor's election, according to Paul M. Green's analysis (see February Illinois Issues). But an equally important though less dramatic tale needs recounting and analysis: the drop in Illinois voter turnout in all recent gubernatorial elections.
There is concern about low voter turnout in the nation and the state. The United States has the lowest participation rate in national elections of any comparable democracy. Since 1960, the turnout in national presidential elections has been in a free fall from 63 percent. After the 1988 presidential election, turnout was at its lowest since World War II — just over 50 percent.
Even lower in turnout are off-year congressional elections. National turnout for the 1990 off-year elections was about 36 percent. That meant just over one-third of the eligible electorate participated in choosing the branch of government closest to the people — the U.S. House of Representatives (which was soon to vote on what was, in effect, a declaration of war). This is democracy?
In Illinois newly elected Gov. Jim Edgar spoke in his January inaugural address of "democracy's dropouts" — those who have opted out of the democratic process. (Ironically he was elected because of low turnout among potential Democrats.) Edgar asserted that concern for these dropouts should be as serious as that over high school dropouts. Earlier, Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago), who is often a weather-vane of the way the wind is blowing in Illinois, floated moving elections to Sundays to increase turnout.
Illinois has not bucked the national trends toward turnout decline (see Ilinois Issues: "Voter Turnout Decline," June 1979; "Voter Turnout Declines Again," February 1981, and "The Case of the Missing Voter," April 1985). In fact, the descent in Illinois has been steeper (see figure).
From a position of leadership among the states in high voter turnout in 1964 (73 percent of the voting age population), Illinois has receded rapidly toward the national norm. The 1988 presidential turnout in Illinois, 53 percent, was only slightly above that of the nation. Indeed, turnout in the 1990 Illinois congressional elections was almost exactly the same as the nation, about 37 percent. Illinois again — as in its demographics and partisan division of the presidential vote — is a microcosm of the nation for declining voter turnout. (See Illinois Issues, "Illinois as a bellwether: so what?" February 1990.)
Despite widespread anxiety over voter turnout, there has been almost no specific discussion about the millions of Illinois voters who have stopped voting. In 1976, 4,639,000 citizens cast votes in the gubernatorial election. In the 1990 governor's election, 3,257,410 votes were cast. That is a loss of over 1.4 million voters, or a drop of 30 percent, over 14 years when Illinois' voting age population grew by about 200,000.
It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes (or Robert Miles) to solve the mystery of the falloff in Illinois voter turnout for gubernatorial elections. The culprit is the shift of the election from
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the presidential to the off-year, starting in 1978 as mandated by the 1970 Constitution. Before the shift, the gubernatorial turnout in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 was a direct function of presidential turnout. In the 14 years since the change, the average turnout in Illinois' four gubernatorial elections has been 40 percent. Turnout would have averaged 56 percent if Illinois had continued electing governors at the same time as presidents (see figure).
Why was the change made? Two interrelated reasons were offered by proponents of the change. Delegates to the Illinois 1970 constitutional convention wanted the electorate to focus on the gubernatorial election, unimpeded by the media hoopla and distractions of presidential politics. They also wanted to "disconnect" gubernatorial from presidential voting to prevent any presidential coattail "contamination" of the gubernatorial elections.
Opponents of the change worried about the effect on overall turnout and in particular on the participation of minorities. The likely depressing effects on both were well-known at the time. Turnout in off-years is always significantly lower than in the presidential election years.
Opposing the change was delegate Martin Tuchow of Chicago: "If you are going to have a fall-off of approximately anywhere up to 1,000,000 votes, to me this is not a service to the people of the state of Illinois. ..." Delegate James H. Kemp of Chicago argued that minorities would be hurt by the decision: "We . . . take the position that [minority] participation through whatever device — whether it shall be because of greater interest in a national election or through any other kind of administrative decision — is the kind of thing that we shall support. . . ." (For the full debate, see Record of Proceedings, Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention, 1972: 1259-1266). Tuchow's amendment to retain gubernatorial elections in presidential years was defeated. (Among the 36 delegates supporting the amendment were Michael J. Madigan and Richard M. Daley, now Chicago mayor). In fairness to those 71 in the majority, Illinois was following the trend of many other states to "de-couple" the gubernatorial election from the presidential.
The decision, however, has subtracted millions of votes from the Illinois gubernatorial elections in 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990. From 1964 to 1976, an average of over 4.5 million voters participated in selecting the governor of Illinois. In those elections, two Democrats (Otto Kerner and Dan Walker) and two Republicans (Richard B. Ogilvie and James R. Thompson) were elected. Since the shift, an average of under 3.5 million have voted, and the Democrats have lost every time. Just as Tuchow and others feared, voter participation dropped — by four million voters.
Some would argue that it is no coincidence that no Democrat has won the governor's office since the change, and it is no coincidence that the closest gubernatorial election was in 1982, the year of highest off-year turnout (44 percent of voting age population). In that election Gov. Thompson beat Adlai E. Stevenson III by little more than 5,000 votes.
The reasoning for the low odds on Democrat victories during off-year elections is that the falloff in voter participation is most likely among minorities and lower income citizens, who normally support Democrats. In 1982, there was a surge in minority voter registration and turnout in Chicago in anticipation of the 1983 mayoral candidacy of Harold Washington. The preceding gubernatorial election in November 1982 demonstrated conclusively that African Americans will register and vote if given a reason to do so. If minorities in Chicago in 1990 had registered and voted at rates even approaching 1982, Neil Hartigan would have given the January inaugural address.
The partisan interpretation — that Republicans will be favored in Illinois' off-year gubernatorial elections — falters in the face of facts: Democrats are consistently elected to other statewide offices (attorney general, treasurer and comptroller) and as U.S. senator. Of the three U.S. senators elected or re-elected in the off-years since the change, two were Democrats: Alan J. Dixon in 1986 and Paul Simon in 1990. One was Republican, Charles H. Percy, in 1978. The partisan interpretation also fails to account for the fact that no Democrat has carried Illinois in the presidential election since 1964.
Regardless of partisan interpretations, the reduced voter participation in Illinois' off-year elections is dramatic, and any change that substantially reduces turnout disfranchises minorities more than anyone else. The reason? The pool of nonvoting U.S. citizens is disproportionately African-American and Hispanic (see Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Why Americans Don't Vote. New York: Pantheon, 1988).
A presidential election is the most dramatic spur to voting for all citizens, but especially African Americans and Hispanics. Even in the high involvement off-year election of 1982 in Illinois, turnout was only 77 percent of the 1984 presidential election.
If anyone had proposed directly to do what the change to off-year elections has done indirectly to voter participation in electing governors and other officials, the state would have been accused of stymieing democracy and representative government. The reasons on record for adopting the change have largely evaporated. Voters are quite capable of dealing with gubernatorial elections and presidential elections as separate events. The "contamination" of the gubernatorial election by presidential coattails is not nearly as likely today as it was in the past because of the increased rate of ticket-splitting (see "Ticket-Splitting," Illinois Issues, August 1979). That evidence was mounting even as the change was made. The off-year elections themselves offer proof of the new sophistication of voters. In 1986, the same electorate that gave the U.S. Senate incumbent, Democrat Dixon, a 65 percent majority, re-elected Republican Gov. Thompson with 53 percent.
One remedy for the turnout problem in Illinois' gubernatorial elections is simple: return that election to presidential election years. That would require a constitutional amendment approved by the General Assembly for ratification by the voters statewide. Any proponents, however, will encounter strong opponents, who will fear the unpredictability of elections that would come with higher turnout.
David Everson is professor of political studies and public affairs at Sangamon State University. He holds a joint appointment in the Illinois Legislative Studies Center. David Hobby, graduate assistant in the center, aided in the preparation of this article.
18/March 1991/Illinois Issues