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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 05:47 am

Revitalize neighborhoods by mobilizing voters

Get ready voters, election season is here again. Door knocking has already begun as candidates for national, state and local offices pass petitions to get their names on the ballot. Critical offices like president and members of Congress and Illinois representatives and senators are on the ballot during next year’s partisan general elections. Crucial local offices are also up, including coroner, circuit clerk, state’s attorney, county board and more. As the political operations rev up, neighborhood leaders and activists should jump deep into the political game and mobilize voters in their communities.

Across the country, general elections pique voter interest much more than elections for municipal government and consolidated elections. Voter participation number comparisons for Sangamon County of general and consolidated elections are striking. During the 2004 Bush-Kerry general election matchup, 97,327 people voted; the 2008 Obama-McCain contest saw turnout surge to 100,679. Compare these numbers with the 2007 consolidated elections, when only 39,709 people voted, and the most recent 2011 election, where only 38,945 voters performed their civic duty.

So approximately 60,000 voters don’t think municipal government, school board and special districts are that important? That seems counterintuitive since one would expect people to be most concerned about issues that hit closest to home, impacting their day-to-day lives – local issues like crime, street repair, zoning, neighborhood revitalization, jobs and schools.  

In our system, voters elect people to represent them. Most elected leaders want to stay elected. To stay elected, officials need to please those who vote. If a broader group of people elect our leaders, it follows that they will respond to a broader agenda. If not, they won’t. It should surprise no one then that, especially at the local level, areas with the highest number of voters get the most attention by politicians and elected officials and, by extension, the best service.

Consider Springfield’s 10 wards and voting patterns in two similar consolidated elections. In 2007, the rank order of wards highest to lowest by vote totals was as follows: 10, 8, 4, 9, 7, 1, 6, 3, 5 and 2. The order in 2011 was slightly altered:10, 7, 8, 9, 1, 4, 6, 3, 5 and 2. Ward 10 (far west Springfield) had the highest number of votes and ward 2 (east Springfield) the lowest in both years. The difference was around 3,000 votes.

In 2007 and 2011, wards 4 and 1 shifted in order between the five highest and five lowest ward vote totals but wards 10, 9, 8, and 7 remained steadily in the top five and wards 6, 5, 3 and 2 in the bottom five. In 2007, wards 10, 9, 8 and 7 produced 13,625 votes and wards 6, 5, 3 and 2 came up with 7,563 votes. A similar pattern resulted in 2011. In both years there were almost twice as many total voters in wards 10, 9, 8 and 7 (neighborhoods essentially west of MacArthur Blvd.) than in wards 6, 5, 3 and 2 (neighborhoods east of McArthur Blvd.).

Since local election winners are often determined by tens or hundreds of votes – these vote total differences speak loudly in political candidates’ field plans and in after-election agendas. The good news for these wards is that significant numbers of voters do participate in general elections, especially when electing presidents. In 2004, wards 6, 5, 3 and 2 saw huge jumps in turnout and vote totals with ward 6 posting a 77 percent voter turnout and 4,617 votes; ward 5 with a 69 percent turnout with 3,248 votes; ward 3 with a 67 percent turnout and 4,367 votes and ward 2 with a 65 percent voter turnout and 3,697 votes. These numbers bust the myth that people in these wards simply will not vote.

How to get them to vote, however, is a key question. Generally get out the vote efforts are led by political parties and special-interest groups. Maybe neighborhood leaders from Springfield’s older areas need to put more skin in the game. Some of these neighborhoods are already asserting newfound power and influence through local issue advocacy. Another strategy to add to the neighborhood revitalization arsenal is to get involved in regular, ongoing, neighbor-to-neighbor voter mobilization efforts. Because if you don’t vote, you won’t count.

Sheila Stocks-Smith is a special projects consultant and adjunct professor at UIS teaching a class on public policy.
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