Local Elections Have Low Participation. Financial Insecurity Leaves Additional Voters Out
Of the 43 states recently reported by the Brennan Center for Justice to be facing a wave of new bills aimed at tightening voting rules, Illinois is not one of them.
In fact, Illinois is one of the easiest places to vote in the U.S., ranking fourth on the Cost of Voting Index. Peoria County Board of Elections Executive Director Thomas Bride said his office does what they can to live up to that ranking.
“We try to make it as simple and easy as possible for voters to be registered,” said Bride. “We have a considerable amount of early voting and, you know, we’ve always promoted the vote by mail which I think will make it easier for some people to vote. Even if you’re not registered you can show up on election day and register and vote.”
So why then don’t more people vote in local elections? Although last month’s primary brought out 16.5% of registered voters, more than the 10% seen in the 2017 primary, those numbers are still far below participation in national elections.
Last November’s presidential election drew ballots from 69.3% of the City of Peoria’s registered voters. The 2017 local general drew a mere 18.4%.
Those that might be unconvinced their voice matters in a local election might consider that LaTrina Leary just beat incumbent Frank Abdnour by a mere two votes in the primary race for Township Supervisor.
“You can have a much bigger effect on local elections because of the turnout, but they also have a much bigger effect on you locally,” said Bride.
“It is fairly easy to vote, but half the battle is getting people to know why they should,” said Mariah Cooley, a community activist in Peoria currently studying political science at Howard University in Washington D.C.
“It's local elections that are going to affect your lives on the daily. It's, you know, the policies that are being put in place here. It's the money and the infrastructure and the rebuilding of our communities," she said.
But the reason that some in Peoria opt out of elections may actually be due to the barrier to voting access created by income inequality, something that voter registration drives alone can’t tackle.
A 2015 study by Pew Research Center showed a “strong correlation” between financial security and political engagement. People with greater financial insecurity are far less likely to cast a vote.
That connection appears to hold in the City of Peoria, at least based on census-level poverty rates. A review of the 2017 local general election results showed that nine of the 10 precincts with the lowest rate of voter turnout (all under 11%) sat within census tracts that had a poverty rate above 30%. That’s in contrast to the 10 precincts with the highest turnouts of 26% or more, all overlapping with census tracts with poverty rates below 18%. Poverty levels were based on the 2019 ACS 5-Year Estimates Data Profiles.
“Oftentimes when you’re living in communities of poverty and under-resourced, the most important thing for them is not who is the mayor,” said Jamila Wilson, a board member of the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria.
“It's ‘what are we having for dinner?’ You know, ‘are we going to be able to keep the lights on? Will I be able to pay for my grandmother's prescription drugs?’”
Wilson says there is always a need for more civic education to increase voter turnout, a core mission of the league, but the greatest impact will result from addressing the root causes of economic inequality in the city.
“ the more that we increase...access to ownership, increase access to living wage jobs, increase Access to healthcare and education,” she said. “[When] those basic needs are met it gives space for people to want to be more engaged, and involved and invested.”
If economic inequality creates a barrier to having a voice in local government, that barrier may be disproportionately felt in Peoria’s Black communities. While Black residents represent 27% of the city’s total population, 43% of those in poverty are Black.
Cooley said she believes Peorians are generally aware of systemic racism in the U.S. and practices such as redlining that put Black communities at an economic disadvantage decades ago.
“But I don’t think Peoria applies it within our own community,” she said. “I think Peorians think they’re exempt because we don’t see the blatant displays of racism or those economic gaps.
“People are complacent because they think these bigger, deeper systemic issues that have been going on for decades and hundreds of years don't apply, and that's something we need to change the narrative of.”
But changing a local narrative takes many voices coming together, something Wilson said is the key to Peoria’s future.
“That's what's going to be the revival of Peoria, is a united Peoria that involves all voices,” said Wilson.
On Tuesday, April 6, Peorians will again have the chance to make their voices heard when they elect a new mayor for the first time in 16 years.
Looking for election information? Check out the WCBU Voter Guide here.
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