When millions of Illinoisans vote for state representative this fall, they might see something surprising on their ballots: more than one candidate.
Why will this be surprising?
Because about half of all Illinois House of Representatives races since 2012 have gone uncontested. Some voters go decades without a choice, when two or more candidates should be the norm for all political races.
This month of November has the potential to disrupt the state’s single-candidate norm.
The Nov. 8 Illinois general election is expected to have at least 82 contested Statehouse races, the most in 24 years. Some of the newly contested constituencies are in “historically uncontested” areas, meaning that only one candidate has contested in three of the last five election cycles – primaries included.
Competition leads to responsibility
For Chicagoans, choiceless ballots are as familiar as their neighbors and local parks. The city has the bulk of Illinois’ undisputed districts – 33 of 57 – with many areas showing the greatest need for representatives to act on their complex issues.
Residents of contested districts tend to see higher levels of education, income, employment, and home value. Competition for votes produces public leaders who are less beholden to special interest lobbyists and more accountable to voters.
For example, Chicago residents in uncontested districts are 67% more likely to be unemployed and 53% more likely to live at or below the poverty line compared to residents of contested districts. Chicago’s historically uncontested neighborhoods have more than twice as many black and Hispanic residents as historically contested neighborhoods, showing how denying choices compounds problems in vulnerable communities.
Single-candidate races rob these Chicagoans of their ability to hold elected leaders accountable and voice their desire for change in their districts. Their votes are suppressed even before they receive a ballot.
The recent Illinois primary offered a taste of the change that could come. Many new candidates got the chance to run in November and provide voters with an option, thanks to a recruiting initiative and encouragement from the Illinois Policy Institute. Republican candidates Alper Turan and David Sheppard, for example, will run in Illinois House Districts 13 and 36, districts that last saw competitive polls 20 and 10 years ago, respectively.
With more candidates in the running, at least 1.2 million more Illinoisans — including Chicagoans in “historically uncontested” districts — will see a choice on their ballots than in 2018.
These new voices could have a profound impact on voter turnout, which is expected to reach 4.3 million people, the highest number of votes for a non-presidential year in recent history. High predicted turnout correlates with more choices on the ballot, studies show. Together, the expected broad voter turnout and number of active candidates willing to challenge the status quo show great potential to prevent Illinois from continuing to be election-no-choice country.
Promise is not progress. To leave behind the “historically unchallenged” trend, Chicago and Illinois need new leaders who are committed and brave enough to campaign and offer voters a choice in every future State House election.
Citizen participation is essential not only on election day, but during the electoral cycle. Passionate local leaders who rise to the challenge with the support of their neighbors ensure communities have real representation in Springfield.
The goal should be for Illinois voters to see one contested ballot for every Statehouse contest. Getting a pick shouldn’t be a surprise.
Bryce Hill is the director of fiscal and economic research at the Illinois Policy Institute.
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