What if we held an election and nobody came? Last Tuesday's turnout shows it's more of a possibility than you might think.
On Tuesday, the voter non-turnout in Champaign County exceeded 87 percent. Just 14,467 voters (12.8 percent of those registered) bothered to cast ballots. Voter turnout in November 2012 was 69.9 percent, according to the Champaign County Clerk's office.
The stunningly low voter turnout was not a complete surprise. There were not a lot of high-profile competitive races. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing had an opponent, but there were no contested races for the city's seven aldermanic seats. In Champaign, four of the city's five district seats were not contested.
Spread across the county were scores of township and school board races as well as city council and village board seats.
But, suffice it to say, it was smorgasbord offering little of substance — low-profile offices, many of which are largely invisible to the public, that provided little competition.
Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten, however, rejected suggestions that the turnout was disappointingly small across the board.
He cited a contested highway commissioner's race in Philo Township that produced 600 voters (44 percent turnout), all but four of whom voted in the highway commissioner's race.
"They all came out to vote for the highway commissioner," Hulten said.
He also noted the Rantoul mayor's race attracted 1,650 voters (24 percent) while contested races in Newcomb Township attracted 320 voters (35 percent).
But even those who find a 44 percent voter turnout exciting can still imagine that the public can do better and would do better if the Legislature didn't schedule low-profile races at a time when voters are not motivated by more important races.
Few people talk more about the sacred right to vote than our elected officials. They sometimes tell scare stories designed to make minority voters believe there is a plot to disenfranchise them. The reality is that few people in Illinois are more effective in discouraging voter turnout than state legislators who set the election schedule.
If greater turnout is the laudable goal our elected officials suggest, why not reschedule the off-year school and municipal consolidated election to the higher-profile, higher-turnout gubernatorial and presidential elections held in even-numbered years?
One can almost hear the objections cited by the supporters of the ineffective status quo — there would be so many more races for the voters to consider that they would be confused to the point of not completely filling out their ballots.
But how would that be worse than not voting at all, as is mostly the case now?
Hulten raised a practical objection to the idea of moving off-year elections to even-numbered years.
"At first glance, my concern is our ability to fit all of the offices in a single ballot (page)," he said, explaining that "multiple ballot pages are difficult to work with."
That's a legitimate concern, but certainly not one that defies solution.
Public interest in elections is by candidates, competitions and the offices at stake. Considered in that context, what would be wrong with combining elections for mayor, school board and city council with more important races for state Legislature, Congress, governor and president?
Supporters of the status quo like low-turnout races because it makes it easier for them to obtain and maintain power. But their concern ought not be the public's concern.
Good government depends on competitive elections and discerning voters. Incompetent and corrupt government thrives when few participate in the election process. A revised, sensible election schedule could encourage more of the former and less of the latter.