Why Illinois Voter Turnout Drops So Much in Midterm Elections: What We Can Do to Narrow the Gap
If the trend of the last 44 years continues this fall, nearly half of Illinois registered voters will take a pass on casting a ballot for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and the rest of the statewide offices.
Midterm turnout in Illinois has averaged 54.2% in the 11 elections since Illinois decoupled its governor campaign from the presidential one, a change that took effect with the 1978 contest. That’s more than 18 percentage points less than the 72.7% average turnout for the 11 presidential elections in Illinois since 1980.
The late Roosevelt University political science professor Paul Green noted an old Chicago political adage following the 2006 governor election: “If you don’t vote – you don’t count.” When only half of registered voters don’t go to the polls, they’re in effect giving those who did vote twice as much power to pick the state’s leaders, observed Green, who was the director of the Roosevelt University Institute for Politics.
The theory behind the split was to insulate the elections for statewide office from the heat of national issues and put the focus on Illinois-centered concerns. The reality, however, is that those very national issues drive voters to the polls. They’re not as clued in on state issues, even though state government decisions often hit closer to home.
“The presidential election is the shiny bauble,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Experts say to close the gap in midterm turnout, Illinois could take more steps to make it easier to vote, including moving Election Day to Saturday. Online voting remains years away as proponents attempt to figure out how to keep that method of voting secure. The state also could consider ranked-choice voting, which is used in a couple dozen cities and had a moment in the spotlight in New York’s mayoral race in 2021.
“It doesn’t take much to keep people from voting,” said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and senior scholar the Institute of Government & Public Affairs in the University of Illinois system.
How we got here
The drafters of the 1970 Illinois Constitution moved to realign elections, at the time joining big states like California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania in splitting campaigns for governor from those for president.
Illinois Constitutional Convention delegates had a choice of when to put the plan in motion—either 1972 or 1976 would become a two-year term for governor. They chose 1976, meaning 1978 would be the state’s first election where the governor candidates didn’t have to follow the presidential contenders on the ballot.
During the proceedings, however, Constitutional Convention delegate Paul Elward tried to undo the switch. Elward, an ally of then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and a state representative who became a judge the same year as the convention, predicted a drop off of about 20% of voters if Illinois separated its election for governor from the one for president.
“The purpose, quite frankly, is to make sure that we do not downgrade state government into something that is secondary of consideration to the general public,” Elward said during debate.
Delegate Jeanette Mullen of Barrington took the opposite view.
“It seems to combine the state election with a national election does not emphasize state government. At that time, everyone is more concerned with national issues and who is going to be the next president, and I suggest that greater emphasis can be put on our state affairs by electing our state officials in an off year,” she said.
The push to keep things the same failed, with only 30 votes in support to 74 against. One of the delegates voting for the status quo? Michael J. Madigan, who was months away from winning his first term representing a Southwest Side district in the Illinois House on his way to becoming the nation’s longest-serving speaker. He’s now fighting a federal political corruption racketeering charge.
By the numbers
Turnout was high in Illinois during the turbulent 1960s. Nearly 9 of 10 registered voters cast ballots in 1960. The lowest turnout was 73.5% for a mid-term election in 1966.
Political observers were waiting and watching in 1978, when Republican James Thompson easily defeated then-Democratic Comptroller Michael Bakalis. Turnout was 57.5%, down nearly 20 points from 77% of registered voters two years earlier, when Democrat Jimmy Carter bested Republican Gerald Ford for president.
Illinois Issues magazine sounded the alarm. David Everson, a political science professor at what’s now the University of Illinois at Springfield, lamented the success of “the stay-at-home party.” He suggested voter cynicism of the post-Watergate era contributed to the dip and chalked it up to a weakening of party allegiances.
“In 1960, Illinois’ turnout of voting-age population was a lofty 13% above the national average. By 1976, that margin was reduced by half, to only 7%. And the figures on turnout in congressional, off-year elections, are even more dramatic. In these races, the drop-off was a catastrophic 22% from 1962 to 1974, or twice the national average. The plunge was 14% from 1970 to 1974. Illinois led the nation in retreat from the polls from 1966 to 1974,” Everson and co-author Joan Parker wrote.
Adding those who can vote but aren’t registered (the voting-age population) would make Illinois’ numbers look even worse. The State Board of Elections publishes turnout based on registered voters in its election reports.
Midterm general election turnout hit a low of 48.6% in 2006 following a nasty campaign full of attack ads between then-Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich and then-Republican Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka. The high point since the split was the close contest in 1982 between then-Gov. Thompson and former Democratic U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III. Nearly 65% of registered voters came out as Thompson was re-elected by just 5,000 votes.
Since then, the state’s biggest turnout percentage-wise was in 2018, when Democrat J.B. Pritzker downed then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Turnout was 57.2%, a feat notable because polls had Pritzker way ahead and he won by nearly 16 points. Then-President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Illinois was a big factor in the relative mid-term surge.
What’s causing the gap when it comes to voting for governor and other statewide offices?
“In a presidential year, everyone knows what’s going on. You know a lot about the candidates. Not a lot of people struggled with the choice in 2020,” Mooney said.
People are not as plugged in on state issues, however. While there’s a lot of coverage the month or two before the election, it’s not the type of cable news blanket coverage afforded presidential candidates.
“Governors are the next most known public official, but there’s a big drop off from president,” Mooney said.
“Americans are human. We don’t care about politics that much. We’re busy. We’re making a living and we’re raising our kids,” he said.
“Do I decide to vote or not? It takes time. You gotta register to vote. You have to think about the candidates. It’s painful. There’s a psychological cost of figuring out who you’d vote for,” he continued. “The primary, it’s the same party and you gotta sort it out. General election? Maybe you just vote by party. It’s easier.”
Rudy Garrett, co-executive director of the nonprofit Chicago Votes Action Fund, said improving midterm turnout is “a tall order.”
“It requires folks to engage groups that might not be likely voters,” she said. “Young people, when they think about politics, think about national politics. We try to bridge that gap.”
Experts said people with more information and the better educated are more likely to vote. Young people move more and often don’t know where to vote. Older people are less likely to move and have more time to research candidates.
“If one of the costs is having to take off work to vote and you punch a clock, you’re less likely to vote,” Mooney said.
Redfield chalked up the turnout gap to people who participate in the political process on a regular basis versus new voters and “sometimes” voters. What got voters to the polls during a presidential year might not be as pressing two years later, he said.
Illinois is not an outlier—the midterm voter participation drop is a nationwide phenomenon that’s been going on for many decades. The 2018 election was an outlier, as the polarizing Trump brought out his supporters and opponents and turnout was the highest for a midterm in 100 years.
Narrowing the gap
Reducing friction in the registration and voting process could help boost midterm turnout, experts said.
Democrats tend to support laws and policies that allow more people to vote, citing equity concerns and the benefits to democracy of more public participation. Republicans favor tightening the rules, decrying the potential for fraud (evidence to support GOP claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020 has not emerged, however).
Since the 2020 election, if you live in a Republican-controlled state, it’s likely become harder to vote. Illinois is run by Democrats, so it’s gotten easier to vote, both through a law passed last year and several changes in the last decade.
Last year, Democrats pushed through a law that allows people to ask to be on a list to permanently vote by mail. The law also requires election officials to set up voting super centers on Election Day so that people who can’t make it to their home precinct in time could still vote, although the provision expires at the end of the year. And the measure allowed for polling places in jails for those awaiting trial (Cook County already was required to do so in a 2019 law).
Before that, Illinois approved automatic voter registration in 2017, a law that adds Illinoisans to the voting rolls when they get or renew a driver's license unless they opt out. Implementation had some problems, however, and advocacy groups sued the Illinois secretary of state to speed things up.
The state allows online voter registration until 16 days before the election. There’s also grace period registration in person through Election Day.
The other half of the equation is making it easier to cast a ballot. While Illinois has taken steps in that direction, good government groups say there’s still some room for improvement.
Online voting could boost turnout, especially among young voters, but security risks remain high and it’s a tough sell in the current political climate.
“I don’t know if everyone is ready for that,” said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan, nonprofit good government group.
Having open primaries would help, with voters not having to declare a party when requesting a ballot, she added. If holding the primary election in the nicer weather of June proves successful, perhaps the date change could be made permanent, she said.
Redfield said moving Election Day to Saturday would help because many people have the day off work.
Mooney said measures that move away from a primary focus on paper ballots on Election Day are key to boosting participation “Reducing bias in the turnout is the goal,” he said. “Now, the electorate isn’t a perfect reflection of the nation.”
Stronger contests also could help. Nothing drives voters to the polls like an interesting race.
The 2018 Pritzker-Rauner matchup wasn’t close, but a lot of money was spent to mobilize voters. This fall’s governor campaign could shatter spending records once again, with Pritzker set to tap into his fortune and hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin backing a Republican slate led by Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin (who must first win the primary).
“More competition gives people more of an incentive to vote. If it’s a close race your vote is more likely to count,” Mooney said.
Garrett, of the Chicago Votes Action Fund said a key to increasing midterm turnout is to engage in education efforts with the kinds of voters who might not otherwise vote. In recent years, the group has been focused on restoring and securing the ability to vote for people in jail or prison. They passed a bill in 2019 that established the Cook County Jail as a polling location, and say that 1,500 voters cast ballots in the March 2020 primary.
Now, the group is advocating for a bill to more quickly restore voting rights for people in prison. Senate Bill 828 would allow people convicted of a felony serving a prison sentence to get their right to vote restored no later than two weeks following the conviction or five days before the first election following the person’s confinement. Current law means people don’t get their voting rights restored until after release.
Getting traction is proving to be a challenge, as Democrats are trying to fend off heavy Republican criticism over a criminal justice reform law Pritzker signed in 2021 amid an increase in murders and the widespread public perception that crime is on the rise.
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