Tom Kacich: Every vote matters; just ask 'Landslide'
Primary elections are nothing like general elections. Primaries are like being in a club and voting for the Grand Poobah, although you don't have to pay club dues or even attend the meetings.
Often they turn raucous and impolite, like this year's Republican gubernatorial race or the Democratic contest in Champaign-Urbana's 103rd House District. You've got people, generally club members who have worked together for years, suddenly at odds over who's going to be the Poobah or the recording secretary. The hope is that once the club elections are over, everyone reunites and cooperates for the betterment of the club's summer picnic.
For the most part, Republicans vote in Republican primaries and Democrats vote in Democratic primaries, although Illinois has an open primary system in which voters can go back and forth, taking a Democratic ballot one time and a Republican ballot the next.
In Champaign County, non-presidential election years like this one have smaller voter turnouts than either presidential primaries or general elections. And Republican voters consistently outnumber Democrats. In both the 2006 and 2010 primaries, Republican voters had a 2-to-1 lead over Democrats.
The total turnout in Champaign County on Tuesday probably will be around 22,000 or 23,000, as it was in 2006 and '10. Many people don't like to vote in primaries because they have to walk into the polling place and declare before God, election judges, a few bystanders and the county clerk that they are a Democrat or a Republican, even if temporarily. That's part of the reason you end up with fewer voters in primaries than in general elections — that and the weather.
But those low primary turnouts often lead to fingernail-bitingly close elections, and can make each vote crucially important:
— Four years ago, the Republican gubernatorial primary went to Bill Brady, who beat Kirk Dillard by 193 votes out of almost 650,000 votes cast.
— In 2002, a four-way Champaign County Board Republican primary was decided by 33 votes.
— Two years ago, in a bizarre Republican race for circuit clerk in Champaign County, Rick Winkel beat Stephanie Holderfield by 240 votes out of more than 16,000 cast. What made the race bizarre is that neither Winkel nor Holderfield was the ultimate Republican candidate.
But there is no better example of the value of an extra door knocked on or telephone call made than Barbara Wysocki of Urbana, who has twice won narrow local election races.
Wysocki, known to friends as "Landslide," won a Democratic circuit clerk primary two years ago by 20 votes out of more than 7,200 cast. And in 2006, she tied an opponent in a county board primary election, eventually winning by a coin toss.
She agreed that primaries "are generally understood as mere conventions of our political party system, easily dismissed by average voters as something to avoid."
"The fact is that while our constitutions (state and national) call for general elections every two or four years to elect officials, they don't provide for a method of selecting the candidates who will compete," she said. "That decision is up to us, the citizens, who should care enough about representative government to evaluate those who step forward to run for public office, presenting their credentials, their experience and their vision."
Wysocki, now chairwoman of the League of Women Voters of Champaign County, argued that low turnouts at primaries "play into the hands of political bosses and moneyed interests who count on low turnouts and tailor the message to fit the predictable crowd who will show up to vote, despite rain, snow, sleet and hail."
"The best way to counter the influence of party bigwigs and big money is for all of us to get out and vote," she said. "Don't leave it to a small minority, or a recount or a coin toss."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.