Feb 15, 2024 - Politics

Chicago's down-ballot races, explained

Illustration of the Chicago skyline cut out of a ballot.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

As Chicago's early voting kicks off Thursday, voters will be asked to make decisions on races from U.S. president to ward committeeperson. But data suggests that many voters won't make it to the bottom of the ballot.

Why it matters: This "undervoting" often lets a small share of voters determine the winners of races that arguably have the most direct impact on local lives.

By the numbers: During the 2020 primary election, 38% of eligible Chicago voters cast a ballot, and national data suggests that about a third of them probably left some part of their ballot blank.

Reality check: Yes, this is just a primary. But keep in mind that, in deep-blue Cook County, Democratic primary winners often become the winners, period.

What's happening: To help voters better understand important but often overlooked down-ballot offices, we talked to former alder and UIC emeritus political science professor Dick Simpson.

The intrigue: Many of these offices, he notes, had historically served as sources of patronage jobs, a situation that has changed some in the era of reform.

Cook County Circuit Court clerk

The clerk oversees a $124 million budget and 1,400 employees who collect fees and maintain the records for the largest court system in the state.

Context: In 2018, while Dorothy Brown served as clerk, the office was placed under federal oversight, known as Shakman monitoring, to clean up patronage hiring practices.

  • It was freed from oversight in late 2022 under current Clerk Iris Martinez but a recent Tribune investigation raised concerns over ongoing campaign contributions to the clerk from her employees, many who had recently received raises.

What to look for: "Someone with some executive experience, who can manage an office with several hundred employees and supervise important technological upgrades," Simpson tells Axios.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner

One of nine officers who oversee a yearly $1.4 billion budget to treat wastewater and manage stormwater for the region.

Context: Wastewater management may not seem glamorous, but the job is an important one in a city that reversed the flow of its river to manage sewage. Plus, MWRD has served as a steppingstone to other political jobs, Simpson notes.

What to look for: "Someone concerned with [water management] ecologically or just in terms of delivering the basic service … and they should have held office before, with distinction," Simpson says.

Cook County Board commissioner

This is the legislative branch of the county, "directly ruling over unincorporated towns and villages, overseeing a $9.2 billion budget and governing the Cook County Hospital and the county criminal justice system of the sheriff, jail and courtrooms," per Simpson.

What to look for: "Someone who is knowledgeable about Cook County government and wants to see reforms … [county government] has improved a lot under Preckwinkle, but there's still a lot of ways you could improve," Simpson says.

Ward committeeperson

"Their principal functions are to slate candidates, help the party win elections and to some extent help local officials deliver services," Simpson says, noting that sometimes alders or state representatives will take it on as a dual role.

Context:​​ "Under the old Richard J. Daley machine, the word 'committeeman' controlled patronage jobs but today that is greatly diminished," Simpson says.

What to look for: "Someone who has been involved in politics before and can get people in their ward to vote for the party's candidates."

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