Blame gerrymandering and our winner-take-all, two-party system for low voter turnout

What if we held an election and no one voted? 

Hyperbole, sure, but after the dismal, barely more than 20% Chicago primary participation rate, that’s the way we’re headed. This could just be the real election crisis we need to compel our officials to act.

There were key contests for Cook County offices on the ballot and some hot races for Congress too, but in many other races, it was over before it began. The presidential nominees already were set.

All eligible people should vote in every election to make their voices heard about how we want our governments run. But fewer of us are doing so, and in no small part it’s due to the disincentives elected officials have put in place.

This isn’t wholly a problem with the presidential primary calendar. The bigger problems are closed or partially closed primaries; gerrymandering that stifles competition; and our winner-take-all, two-party system.

The Associated Press recently interviewed Danielle Piatkiewiz, deputy chief operating officer at the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, a Denmark-based think tank, who said voter attitudes might change if the U.S. were more like many European Union countries that give voters a slate of candidates from different parties and then hold a run-off with the top vote-getters.

In this country, more than 80% of congressional districts nationwide are decided in primaries because gerrymandering lawmakers have removed any chance of competition. Noting far fewer people participate in primaries, Nick Troiano, executive director of the reform group Unite America, told the AP, “So we have a rule of the minority, not the majority.”

And we wonder why our federal government is paralyzed?

The situation in Illinois is dire, too. We don’t have a completely closed primary, but many voters do not like asking for a Democrat or Republican ballot, so they skip primaries.

As in many states, Illinois officials draw legislative districts to the majority party’s advantage. The result, too often, is no competition.

Capitol News Illinois recently reported that statewide, 88% of judicial and state legislative primaries had either a single candidate or no one running. That’s the highest number of non-competitive primaries for those offices in at least 20 years, according to their data analysis.

Only one legislative district, the 76th House District in northwestern Illinois, had contested Democratic and Republican primaries. The incumbent didn’t run for reelection.

Uncontested and non-competitive elections have been a problem for decades in Illinois. Part of the reason is that we’ve self-sorted ourselves. The urban area in and around Chicago is Democrat-dominant, while downstate is Republican-ruled, but gerrymandering is the other big contributor.

Gerrymandering kills competition, and when there is no real competition, fewer people vote, particularly in a primary election when they have to ask for one ballot or another.

Stopping officials from drawing their own districts, picking their own voters and maximizing their power is one of the solutions we need here and nationwide. Opening up primaries so more of us feel comfortable participating is another. Illinois has a task force examining ranked-choice voting now. 

Imagine it: If we had open primaries and ranked-choice voting, voters in that 76th House District could have had a ballot with all three Democrats and two Republicans running, and they could have rated them in order of preference. The top two or three could face off in a general election. No one would waste their votes or be disenfranchised. If someone voted first for a candidate who came in last place after the initial tally, then that vote would be discarded, but the voter’s second choice would be counted. That system allows for a candidate to win with some level of support from a majority of voters.

If our elections now were businesses, they’d be headed toward bankruptcy.

Ending gerrymandering, opening up primaries and instituting some form of ranked-choice voting would give people plenty of choices and competition and ensure we elect people who represent the majority.

Sounds like a system worth trying, doesn’t it? Sounds like a path to a more vibrant democracy.

This originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times as a Letter to the Editor on March 20, 2024.