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Higher City-Town Voter Turnout Still Comparatively Puny

Polling place in Normal
Charlie Schlenker
/
WGLT
McLean County election officials described voter turnout as above average and steady, yet at the end of the day it was still not so much compared to a national contest.

In Normal, 2,000 more voters cast ballots Tuesday than have ever voted in a town election before. And yet, that's still just over 25% of registered voters.

There were 8,536 ballots cast for Normal mayor out of 33,566 registered voters this cycle. The last time out, there were 6,300 odd ballots cast in the mayoral race, then a record total. Turnout this time was 25.4%.

Mayor Chris Koos touted the record turnout as a validation of his campaign. So did losing mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli, who said it shows his views were heard.

Yes, but not so fast, said Illinois State University political scientist Erik Rankin, who said the obverse is three-quarters of registered voters didn't show up at the polls.

"Trying to take a mandate or claim some level of success when you only get the feedback of 25% of the population is really, I think, missing the bigger point," said Rankin.

Rankin said there were clear distinctions in candidate philosophies to help drive participation. Yet turnout remained low.

"And it's not because it's not divisive. You know this was at times a fairly divisive campaign. The issues were real. But people are just not connecting," said Rankin.

Rankin said people seem to fixate on the presidential and national election cycles and don't pay heed to local contests even though those races have a lot more direct impact on people's lives.

"It can't be true that only 25% of people actually care about local issues. But, boy there's a massive disconnect when it comes time to turn out the vote. On the one side we're excited to see turnout numbers go up, but on the flip side they are still abysmally low," said Rankin.

campaign mailers
Credit Charlie Schlenker / WGLT
/
WGLT
Unusually large amounts of direct mail went to Bloomington Normal voters as candidates struggled to connect during the pandemic.

Bloomington's voter turnout also was higher than average at just under 22%. Rankin said mayoral races tend to drive turnout at the local level and the three-way race in Bloomington between Mboka Mwilambwe, Mike Straza, and Jackie Gunderson had fewer sparks than the one in Normal, which was a rematch.

"It has been this way for my entire life. I just don't know what it's going to take for people to look at local issues the same way they do state and national issues," said Rankin.

He said the victories in Normal of incumbent moderates on the council and the defeat of progressive council candidates in Bloomington showed that while there is a substantial block of voters on the left and right, candidates have to appeal to moderates as well as their base.

210407_rankin_qa.mp3
Hear the entire WGLT interview with political scientist Erik Rankin.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.