Can Our Republic Survive?

By Michael Kleen

April 4, 2012

Past the sea of colorful yard signs and half-empty polling places, the contentious candidate forums, robo calls, and gray haired election judges, stands a question about the fundamental legitimacy of our form of government. Without a significant shift in public interest, can our republic survive? Will it be possible to have a healthy election for local, state, and national representatives without a new generation of educated volunteers, judges, public officials, and voters to sustain it?

I am guessing that most people who read this column will never have participated in a primary election. A primary election is an election in which the established political parties decide who their candidates will be in the general election in November. It is open to the public; one only has to ask for a Democratic or Republican ballot. These elections are important because, ideally, they present a number of different candidates for any particular public office and allow the voters to decide which of those candidates best represent their views. If you want an incumbent out of office, the primary election is the easiest way to make that change. Recent experience has taught me, however, that the primary process is in serious trouble, at least in the State of Illinois.

First, the majority of primary races are uncontested, and those that are contested usually come down to only two candidates. So out of all the lawyers, business owners, community leaders, teachers, and otherwise qualified people in a county or district, 99.99 percent of them have no interest in running for public office. In the County Board Chairman race in Winnebago County (pop. 295,266), for example, there were only two Republicans running against each other in the primary, with no Democratic candidate to oppose the winner come November.

Second, the electoral process itself is ripe with fraud and incompetence. Election judges are not properly trained and there are not enough people willing to volunteer as poll watchers to keep the political parties honest. When I went to my polling place on March 20, the election judge who handed me a ballot told me it was a punch-card ballot, when it clearly stated on the ballot itself that I was to fill in the bubble next to my selection. In another incident, a person was given two ballots and the election judge had to be told several times that he had made a mistake and to take one of the ballots back.

If that was not bad enough, late in the morning on this particular election day it was determined that the county’s ballots were too big for the voting machines. Rather than trim the ballots down before giving them to any more voters, or hand counting them that evening, the County Clerk invited members of the public and the candidates’ campaign staff to copy each and every ballot onto new ballots that would fit the machines. Members of the media were forbidden from viewing this process. One concerned local put it best when she asked, “How can we, as the public, possibly trust the results, whether we agree with the official outcome or not?”

Third, voters appear alarmingly disinterested in the electoral process. In the 2012 Illinois primary, only 24 percent of eligible voters in Chicago went to the polls. This was a “historically low” turnout, perhaps the lowest ever recorded for the city. In my own city, Rockford, only 22.7 percent of registered voters cast their ballots. In a special election last April, which included aldermanic races in the City of Rockford, only 14.5 percent of Rockford voters and 11 percent of Winnebago County voters participated. Reporters and election officials blamed a lack of contested races for the low turnout, but I think there is something deeper at play.

A modern election is not an organic process. It requires careful planning to make sure that everything runs smoothly and fairly. County clerks, election judges, and the political parties have one to two years between each election to get it right. But even if everything is done right at the planning and execution stage, it still requires the participation of the voters to legitimize the process. In a republic, there is nothing more important than helping to choose the next generation of leaders who will represent you.

18th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote, “As soon as someone says of the business of the state – ‘What does it matter to me?’ – then the state must be reckoned lost.” By not voting in the Illinois primary in March, 75-80 percent of Illinoisans said, “What does it matter to me?” when it came to choosing who would represent them on the ballot in November. If this trend continues, and the next generation fails not only to become excited about participating in elections, but loses all interest in participating, we may very well see the end of the democratic experiment in America.


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