Local Voter Education and Corruption in Chicago

Photo: Chicago Tribune
Photo: Chicago Tribune

Local Voter Education and Corruption in Chicago

By: Emily Gray Brosious, May 3, 2013

           As school children in the United States, we are educated from a fairly young age on the structure and functions of our Federal government. Ask any fifth grader what the three branches of the U.S. government are, and they are likely to whip back, “Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.” Many eighth graders are even required to pass a U.S. Constitution test before entering high school.

The time and effort spent educating children on the Federal government is not similarly extended to the study of local government. Ask a fifth grader about the composition of their local government and you are likely to get a puzzled look.  Public school curriculum includes relatively little on the workings of state and local governance. As a result of this Federally focused approach to civic education, Americans tend to be more tuned in to government and politics at the national than the local level.

Knowledge is a precursor to effective participation. The less one knows about local government and elections, the less likely one is to participate in local government or vote in local elections.

The Bipartisan Research Center found 57.5% of eligible voters turned out for the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. Contrast that with turnout for Chicago’s 2012 mayoral race, which came in at just 40%, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. Chicago’s aldermanic races see some of the lowest voter turnouts. WBEZ estimates in Chicago’s 2011 aldermanic races, just 20% of eligible voters came out to cast ballots.

Chicago has been called the most corrupt city in the country, and some experts believe low voter turnouts for local elections are directly related to the city’s high rates of political corruption. Former 44th ward alderman-turned political science professor Dick Simpson estimates at least a third of Chicago’s aldermen are corrupt.

Simpson points to the link between low voter turnout for aldermanic races and the ability of corrupt alderman to maintain power for long spans of time, which promotes a culture of corruption without political consequence. Simpson and his team at the University of Illinois, Chicago, report the cost of Chicago’s corruption at around $500 million. “Corruption taxes,” Simpson calls it – the price we pay for neglecting to educate voters and would-be voters about their local governments and electoral processes.

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