Executive Director Reports

Surrendering democracy without a fight?

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Rauner’s sowing cynicism among voters—and that suits him just fine.

Did you vote in the recent municipal elections? How about in the last round of state legislative races?

Most Americans still vote in presidential elections, but that number has been steadily declining. In 2016, it was just 58.1%. That means more than 40% of eligible voters failed to cast a ballot (and, of course, that doesn’t count those who haven’t even registered to vote).

And when it comes to local government races, voter participation rates are even more dismal. Despite hotly-contested races in a number of cities and towns across Illinois in early April, voter turnout was shockingly low—often in the range of just 15 or 16%.

What the heck is going on?

Are we effectively surrendering our democracy without even making a fight? Because voting, after all, is the bedrock of democracy. If we don’t have a say in choosing who our leaders are, then how can we possibly hold them accountable? If those leaders don’t believe they can be voted out of office, then why fear popular outrage or protest?

The decline in voting may be the result of social isolation—with too many folks no longer seeing themselves as citizens, but as consumers, focused on the goods we’ll buy for ourselves rather than the common “wealth” we share, such as roads, parks and schools.

Or it may be that as denizens of social media, we’re prepared to settle for the illusion of democratic participation when our posts or tweets “go viral,” stirring up little hornets’ nests.

Of course, we know for a fact that there’s a systematic effort underway by right-wing forces to legally and operationally suppress voter turnout in certain areas. That’s why a number of states have passed laws requiring that voters produce photo ID’s at the polling place.

Moreover, there have been numerous instances of “dirty tricks” in which voters receive phone calls or mailings giving them the wrong polling places, voting dates or absentee ballot addresses.

But it seems to me that the most important factor in all of this is one that is easy to miss—a deliberate effort to sow cynicism about and alienation from the political process.

The wealthy elite that have turned their attention to the political arena have figured out that it is actually a lot easier to persuade voters—especially those who might lean Democratic—to stay home than it is to persuade them to support candidates who will clearly act in the interest of that elite.

So increasingly we have elected officials who are actually “elected” by a minority of the electorate—in some cases, a very tiny minority.

Illinois is a painful case in point.

In the 2014 gubernatorial election—the one that brought us Bruce Rauner—voter turnout was actually less than 50%! And recall that Rauner won that race with less than 51% of the vote.

So, in other words, just 25% of the Illinois electorate set our state on the path to the fiscal Armageddon that Bruce Rauner has so zealously pursued—jeopardizing our educational system, our human services and our credit rating.

Then take a look at what happened in the 2016 state legislative races. Republican legislators had voted against a critically important bill intended to help fend off Rauner’s attacks on state employees. Democrats, almost unanimously, stood with union members in that fight.

But come election time, two of the Democrats with the strongest pro-labor voting records—Mike Smiddy and Gary Forby—were defeated, while just about every Republican was re-elected. And turnout in those races was just a little over 65%—with more than a third of voters failing to come to the polls.

If every union member in every one of those districts had cast a ballot, candidates who stood with working families could have carried the day.

No surprise, Bruce Rauner is adept at the perverse art form of voter alienation.

Rauner’s millions in campaign contributions largely go to ugly, negative advertising—almost all of it false. His relentless efforts to portray all of “Springfield” as “corrupt” have helped to create a feeling of hopelessness among voters—and it’s a feeling that suits him just fine.

With polling numbers down in the basement, Rauner knows there’s little enthusiasm for his re-election. The state’s been completely paralyzed since he became governor, sinking ever deeper into debt and despair. His best, indeed probably his only, chance of winning is to keep voter turnout in 2018 very, very low. And that’s exactly what he’s aiming to do.

Rauner’s already started his dis-information campaign. So let’s start our voter education and motivation program now too.

Let’s keep building our PEOPLE program so we can get our message out. Let’s reach out to our communities about the importance of defeating Bruce Rauner and putting Illinois on the road to economic growth.

And let’s do everything we can to ensure that every union member in Illinois votes in 2018.