Column: Want to increase voter turnout? Reduce the units of government in Illinois.

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Signs direct visitors to an early-voting polling place at the Orland Township offices in Orland Park.

Signs direct visitors to an early-voting polling place at the Orland Township offices in Orland Park. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

If you are among the one in six eligible voters who participate in local elections, you may have experienced a sense of anxiety upon glancing at a ballot.

You may have looked at lists of names of multiple candidates for municipal, township, park district, elementary school district, high school district, library district, community college district, sanitary district, fire protection district, regional board of school trustees and other offices and faced a tough question.

“Who are all these people?” you might have asked.

You may have recognized some names from yard signs in your neighborhood or from campaign ads mailed to your home or tucked into your front door.

But if you’re like most people, you have no idea who is running for local office. It’s OK. Don’t be ashamed. The sheer volume of choices can feel overwhelming.

“The administration of the consolidated election is an extremely complex process as there are more than 2,500 candidates running in a total of 1,025 races,” Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough said in a recent news release about Tuesday’s suburban elections.

The clerk is not the problem. Election authorities generally do an outstanding job executing the enormously difficult task of running local elections.

“Due to the overlapping of so many electoral districts, the clerk’s office was required to produce more than 10,000 different ballot types,” Yarbrough said in the release.

Rather, the dismal turnout rates in these crucial elections are a direct result of our state’s most notorious claim to infamy: Illinois has more layers of government than any other state.

The Illinois comptroller’s office counts 8,529 different units of government. The U.S. Census Bureau came up with a different result, saying Illinois has 6,963 units, according to the Center for Government Studies at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Either way, we have far more public taxing bodies than any other state.

An elected board of multiple members typically oversees each unit of government. Most school boards have seven members. Most township boards have five. For a few more weeks, the Blue Island City Council has 14 members. The number will soon drop to seven as a result of a voter-led initiative to reduce the number of seats.

Multiple candidates often seek election to boards, creating contests. Generally, this is a healthy sign of an involved citizenry. In Ford Heights, population 2,736, six people are running for mayor. Another 10 are vying for three open seats on the village board.

Choice is good. The problem is not that so many people want to serve in public office. The problem is there are so many seats to fill.

Many potential voters lack the time or inclination to research candidates. Most people want to avoid voting for the “wrong” candidate, so they don’t vote.

“The consolidated election does not receive the same level of participation as the presidential or gubernatorial elections,” Yarbrough said in the release. “But these elections are extremely important because voters will be casting ballots for the local offices that really have the most impact on their daily lives.”

The best way to address the problem is for state lawmakers to adopt measures that encourage consolidation of government units. Potential cost savings are an incentive for consolidation, since fewer units of government might mean fewer administrators and reduced payrolls.

Consolidation, however, could potentially boost democratic participation by thinning the herds of candidates in local elections every two years. If voters did not feel so overwhelmed by the volume of candidates, they may be more inclined to learn more about those running for office.

Opportunities to realize efficiencies through consolidation are many. Many areas of the state already have a single unit school district that serves both elementary and high school students. Many communities have one school superintendent and school board instead of two or more.

Benefits of separate park districts and library districts include independence and autonomy. Downsides can include voter apathy and lack of citizen participation.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but some communities should explore whether to disband their library and park districts and absorb operations as municipal departments.

There are important considerations in the debate. No community should be forced to accept changes it does not want. Rather, consolidation should be presented as an option. Voters should decide through binding referendums whether to save money by dissolving various units of government.

Understandably, various entities that benefit from the current setup will resist efforts to consolidate. That’s why no serious effort to reduce the layers of government in Illinois has caught on, despite the problem’s existence for decades.

Consolidation advocates often target township government. Eliminating townships may make sense in some areas where municipalities maintain roads and other agencies provide transportation and other services for senior citizens and others.

But consolidation could look completely different in the south suburbs. The region has dozens of small municipalities, each with its own police, fire and public works departments.

What if township government operated a single public works department that maintained roads, water and sewer systems in various small municipalities? That could eliminate some administrative bloat.

That scenario, however, doesn’t address the issue of hordes of candidates clogging ballots and scaring voters away from elections. The point is, discussions about potential consolidation opportunities are long overdue in many communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that courts, schools and other big systems can completely reorganize their operations with little notice. With consolidation, the biggest obstacle has been a lack of political will. Few seem willing to initiate discussions about streamlining government, improving efficiency and reducing costs to taxpayers.

That’s a shame, because consolidation of tiny government units in the south suburbs and throughout Illinois could potentially boost voter turnout and give our democracy a boost.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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April 2, 2021 at 09:35PM

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