Taxation Without Participation? Low Voter Turnout Lets Small Minority of Voters Decide Ballot Questions Hitting All Voters’ Wallets

By David Struett, Chicago Sun-Times | March 12, 2024

Voter turnout is typically low in primary elections. It’s even worse for end-of-ballot referendums.

Since many voters skip those questions, a slim minority often decides the fate of referendums, which often raise taxes, according to an analysis by the office of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

An average of less than 30% of registered Cook County voters determined the fate of 75 property tax-related referendums between 2020 and 2023, the study found. Turnout was so poor that nearly half of those referendums were decided by less than 25% of voters.

The study shines light on the importance of voting, even during lower stakes primary elections, since these referendums have a direct impact locally.

“Voters are given the power to make these key decisions, but most don’t bother to vote,” Pappas said in announcing her office’s study. “And when their taxes go up, they are the first to complain.”

The Bring Chicago Home referendum has one of the strongest organizing efforts seen by Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. If implemented, it would increase taxes on high-end real estate transactions to pay for homeless services.

But Simpson thinks there will still be a very low voter turnout in this primary election because there’s no major competitive race at the top of the Democratic or Republican tickets.

“We’ll be lucky to get 25% to 30% of people to vote, even with all the publicity,” Simpson said. “What that means is that [a minority of] voters will decide whether Chicago votes to implement the new transfer tax.”

The stakes are equally high for the dozen suburban referendums that could raise property taxes by millions of dollars and, in one case, dissolve a suburban fire protection district.

The study identifies patterns tied to voter turnout and the fate of referendums.

More referendums are passed in primary elections — 83% — when about one in four voters took part, the study found. About two-third of referendums passed in general election years when 50% of those who were registered actually voted.

There is also a consistent pattern of voters skipping end-of-ballot questions. That drop-off is greatest in general election years, when a median of 7% of voters skip referendums, the study found. It was less in primary elections, when there was a 4% drop off.

State law requires municipalities to hold referendums when they want to exceed state-imposed limits on property tax increases. As a result, Cook County voters since 2020 have approved referendums allowing 27 bond issues that created $1.16 billion in new debt and tax levies of more $59 million in 11 taxing districts, according to the study.

Bring Chicago Home

The Bring Chicago Home referendum — which could raise transfer taxes on properties over $1 million and lower them on less expensive ones — has seen strong opposition and a prominent legal challenge.

That attention has helped educate the greater voting population about it. But many people may skip the question because of its confusing wording, Simpson said.

“The wording of the referendum is lengthy. It’s hard to parse. It doesn’t say on top that it’s Bring Chicago Home or a mansion tax,” Simpson said. “It’s going to be hard for voters to figure out what they’re voting on.”

To counter that confusion, the group Chicago Votes has been educating people about the measure in layperson’s terms, explaining the language voters can expect on the ballot. The nonpartisan group’s voter guide explains the benefits of the referendum in a comic-book form.

“It’s tax lingo so it’s confusing,” said Katrina Phidd, the group’s communications director. “We emphasize that the referendum is just for Chicago and will affect us immediately.”

Some voters in Chicago shared their confusion outside the Loop early voting supersite on Monday.

Melissa Soliday read the referendum question carefully before asking a voting site employee to explain what it meant.

“I didn’t quite grasp it,” Soliday said.

The legal language of the referendum was less of a challenge for Andrew Weiss, a lawyer, who said he always votes for ballot issues.

Voter Arnold Patton said he was prepared for the referendum question, having spent the last six months studying the issue.

“I always put in time into what I’m doing and who I’m voting for,” he said.

But the question still confused Laura White, who read the referendum twice before realizing it was about the transfer tax.

“I thought Bring Chicago Home was something different,” she said.

Suburban referendums pass or fail by few votes

Though Bring Chicago Home is drawing more attention, 12 referendums are also on ballots in Cook County suburbs.

Five suburbs are voting to issue bonds worth more than $150 million. Four are voting to increase property taxes by $8.6 million.

Two suburbs are voting to grant themselves home rule authority, which gives small towns taxing powers. One south suburban township is voting for new taxes to provide additional mental health services. And Elk Grove Rural Township is voting to dissolve its fire protection district that stopped operating in October 2023.

Referendums often pass or fail by razor thin margins in the suburbs. The treasurer’s office study points to some recent notable referendums that had low turnout.

In south suburban Hometown, voters passed a measure to give officials home rule, or added tax powers, by just two votes, 381-379. Just 27% 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% of registered voters deciding the outcome in November 2022.

The Stone Park fire department was eliminated by a vote of 182-145 in March 2020. Only 21% of the village’s registered voters participated.