Pappas Study: How a Few Voters Control the Fate of More Than a Billion Dollars in New Spending

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Business

This election season, voters throughout Cook County will decide whether to repair aging schools, improve a lake front beach, shut down a fire department and give local politicians new powers to tax. If history is any guide, only a sliver of the electorate will decide the outcomes of those key ballot questions known as referendums. An average of less than one out of every three registered voters determined the fate of 75 property tax-related referendums from 2020 to 2023 in Cook County, an analysis by the office of Treasurer Maria Pappas found. In fact, turnout has been so poor that the fate of nearly half of those referendums was decided by less than 25 percent of all voters. “Voters are given the power to make these key decisions, but most don’t bother to vote,” Pappas said. “And when their taxes go up, they are the first to complain.” When voters stay home, they allow a small group of motivated voters to hold sway over decisions that impact their wallets. The analysis, titled “The Few Decide for the Many,” found that seven out of 10 referendums were approved, with majorities voting on less than 10 percent of those that did pass. Those referendums allowed government to create $1.16 billion in new debt and increase property tax caps by more than $59 million. The analysis also shows how one or two votes, amid poor turnout, determine outcomes of critical ballot questions:

• In south suburban Hometown, the decision to give officials home rule authority, which includes additional taxing powers, passed by two votes, 381-379. Just 27 percent of the city’s electorate voted in June 2022.

• In University Park, a referendum to create a park district failed on a tie vote of 815 – 815, with less than 22 percent of registered voters deciding the outcome in November 2022.

• In Stone Park, the fire department was eliminated by a vote of 182-145. Only 21 percent of the village’s registered voters participated in the March 2020 election.

“I urge voters to get out and vote, and also to not skip the referendum questions lower on the ballot so these issues can truly be determined by a majority and not by a few,” Pappas said.

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