Last Tuesday, City of Champaign Township voters had the opportunity to vote on a referendum to ask the City of Champaign Township trustees to restore the level of general assistance funding by “any and all means available to them.” In the crazy patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions and taxing bodies that is Illinois local government, the townships are the ones who provide general assistance — a type of welfare for the poorest of the poor.
The measure, which was only advisory, passed by a margin of more than 2–1. That is a convincing margin in these days of 51 percent–49 percent elections. As a result of the vote, Township Supervisor Linda Abernathy told the News-Gazette that she would ask the Township Board (also the Champaign City Council — I told you Illinois local government was crazy) to put a binding referendum on the November ballot to raise the property tax levy for the township. Mayor Gerry Schweighart said that he believed such a measure would pass (though without his personal vote).
Unfortunately, such assuredness may be misplaced. Two years ago, a referendum to raise the same property tax by the same amount for the same reason failed by the same margin of 2–1. So what gives?
Voter turnout in this country is low. In last Tuesday’s election, turnout as a percentage of registered voters was only about 36 percent, and that was high for a primary election. Most of those people (59 percent) were Democrats energized by the Clinton-Obama battle. While I love to see people energized about government, I have to wonder where some of these folks were in 2006, when only 47 percent of registered voters made it to the polls.
When people don’t participate in elections, decisions get made by those who actually vote. If that group changes in every election, we get conflicting votes. Conflicting votes based on a small turnout lack the certainty and legitimacy that a decision made by all registered voters would have. They also force capricious changes to important government programs.
In the case of City of Champaign Township general assistance, that means that for over a year some very poor people have had to get by with even less.
Now it may be that Champaign voters really do oppose a property tax hike to support the poor, but with less than half of the voters coming to the booth, we may never really know.
This November, voters may get another chance to weigh in. Even if you don’t think that recipients of general assistance deserve the help (a callous decision in my book), everyone should acknowledge that they deserve a few moments of our day to consider their situation and what we as citizens feel we should do about it.
So vote in November. Vote in every election. They all count.