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So much civic energy, so few good candidates

A public hearing on the proposed Barack Obama Presidential Library was held at the Washington Park Field House. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

We had a highly competitive, in-your-face governor’s race last fall that still failed to get even half of Illinois’ registered voters to cast ballots.

Just over 40 per cent of Chicago’s eligible voters showed up four years ago when Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor.

OPINION

And the Illinois primary last March set a turnout futility record of 18 per cent, due in part to a lack of competition: Nearly 80 per cent of the non-judicial contests in the Chicago area had only one candidate on the ballot, or no one.

As I’ve said in previous columns, the fight for better government has to be waged on two fronts: Watchdogs holding officials accountable and advocating reforms; and the public supporting candidates who want to serve — not just collect.

Sadly, the public hasn’t been holding up its end of the bargain lately, and the breadth of civic disengagement — an apparent bi-product of apathy, alienation and demoralization — reflects an election system in desperate need of reforms that encourage more people to run for office and more voters to cast their ballots.

It’s tempting to suggest there’s also a lack of civic energy, but the energy is there — it just has to be tapped.

Exhibit A is the Chicago Park District’s recent hearings on the Emanuel administration’s support for two South Side sites to house the Obama Presidential Library and Museum.

The hearings were scheduled after the library foundation criticized a University of Chicago plan to use land in one of the iconic parks — Washington or Jackson — designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, America’s preeminent landscape architect.

Despite the last-minute notice, a thousand-plus Chicagoans attended the hearings — one in each park — to weigh in on the use of cherished public recreation areas for a library and museum.

More than 150 people spoke out on a wide range of issues during the six hours of hearings, including legacy land, community development, economic benefits, tourism and preservation.

South Side residents were totally engaged.

At last week’s City Council meeting, the Emanuel administration proposed an intergovernmental agreement that would transfer up to 21 acres in either park to City Hall if one of those sites wins the multi-city competition for the project.

The administration’s proposal will certainly spark additional praise and criticism, and we look forward to a vigorous debate on the pros and cons at subsequent hearings.

That’s what civic engagement and a healthy, vibrant democracy are all about.

And it begs an obvious question: How do we transfer some of that energy to the electoral process — to encourage more people to run for office, register to vote and actually cast ballots?

An obvious place to start is by making it easier and less expensive to do all of those things, and the good news is that lawmakers are slowly implementing or considering reforms aimed at just that, including Election Day voter registration, a longer early voting period, and pilot campaign finance programs to assist candidates without deep pockets.

Legislators should also take steps to eliminate the inherent conflicts on election boards made up of officeholders with a vested interest in keeping challengers off the ballot, and it’s worth considering whether primary and general elections should be two or three months apart, instead of eight.

We won’t be able to measure the effects of the reforms until we’ve gone though a few election cycles, but the goal is clear: A healthier level of civic engagement, with or without a hot button controversy like the site of a presidential library and museum.

That’s a key to the strong democracy this country is supposed to stand for.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga