Smile Politely

Getting ready to vote? Don’t forget about county elections: Part one

Election day is November 3rd. That’s just about 60 days away. No matter your political persuasion, this is an important election. We are facing a global pandemic, a reckoning of our nation’s racism that runs hundreds of years deep, and a referendum on the performance of the most controversial president in modern history.

There are, by my count, 139 elected officials that represent the people of Champaign-Urbana across all forms of government. There are some controversial and heated elections for federal and local office, but this article isn’t about them.

This article is the first of two about the 31 of them that make up most of the Champaign County government, because they control more of your day to day life than you probably expect. Road not paved? Pulled over going to the Walmart in Savoy? Need a lawyer if you get arrested? Need to catch a bus to a job interview? Relative in a nursing home? Went to Lake of the Woods or Homer Lake for an afternoon in nature? Know a kid in Head Start? That’s all county government.

County government is important and has an impact in our community. Voters get to decide how it is run and by whom. There are 22 members of the County Board, the central legislative body of county government with some regulatory or oversight authority on nearly everything.

The 22 members are elected from 11 districts. There are 13 Democrats and nine Republicans. District 5 is the only district represented by one Democrat and one Republican. It contains Bondville and much of the western edge of the City of Champaign.

With elections every two years, the County Board has had 27 elections in the past four years. 16 of those elections, or just under two thirds, were uncontested. According to the County Clerk’s election records, in those uncontested elections, one third, 33%, of ballots came back as undervotes, meaning either something was wrong with the ballot or the voter didn’t mark anything. For contested County Board elections, the number of undervotes drops to 6% despite similar numbers of ballots cast..

These numbers suggest that voters are not happy with uncontested races, with around one quarter of voters going out of their way to not vote for someone running unopposed.

The County Board works alongside the County Executive to appoint several key positions of power in the community and work as the people’s only voice in those decisions.

Take for example, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. It is a tax levying body, meaning they can change the taxes you pay and if they annex your land, levy new taxes on you. They are overseen by a Board of Trustees which are appointed by the Champaign County Executive with the consent of the County Board. This means that the only representation CUMTD constituents have in that tax is through who they vote for County Board Member and County Executive.

Maybe bus services are too mundane for the crazy year that is 2020. How can you affect the way our community is handling the COVID-19 pandemic with your ballot? Well, for that, look to the oversight of the Champaign County Public Health Department and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department, the two agencies who cooperate on official responses to public health issues. As you might expect, the Champaign County Board of Health is made up of nine people who are appointed by the Chair of the County Board of Health and approved by the County Board (who is themselves appointed by the Board). Additionally, one of the members of the Board of Health must be a member of the County Board.

What about the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department? They’re overseen by their own Board of Health, which is made up of the Township Supervisors for the City of Champaign Township and Cunningham Township (which contains Urbana), and a member of the County Board.

The County Executive, with the consent of the Board, has appointment authority over the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District, which is an independent property-tax supported body with no elected officials. They also appoint the Board of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the Housing Authority of Champaign County, the Mental Health Board, the Farmland Assessment Review Committee, the Regional Planning Commission Board, and a half dozen other agencies.

Administrative officials who are elected in the county also have a lot of power. This is a big election for judicial officials at the county, with the State’s Attorney (though this race is uncontested this time around), who serves as the county’s criminal prosecutor, and the Circuit Clerk, who keeps court records and makes them available to people involved in trials. While not big policy makers, the choices these people make are central to the questions of criminal justice reform that have arisen out of the cries for justice following George Floyd’s murder. (We also elect a County Sheriff who enforces law and sets policing policy for 50,000 Champaign County citizens, though the office isn’t up for election this cycle)

The County Clerk is not on the ballot this year, but is responsible for coordinating elections, polling place, voting registration, and mail-in voting. Questions of election security and voter suppression are being answered daily by our County Clerk. There are a lot of concerns surrounding voting this election and the people who are answering them aren’t federal officials who secretly work for the President. They’re our neighbors who work for the county government.

Many of the biggest questions of politics that come to our news feeds every day will not be answered by a president, even if it’s the presidential choice you want. They will be answered by local officials who actually set policy for our community. If you want to learn more about local government, get in contact with your representatives at the county, city, or township level. If you want information about who is running for this election, information about who’s running this election will be made available through the County Clerk’s office once ballots are finalized. In the meantime, you can find candidate listings and interview on the Champaign County Voter’s Alliance website. Smile Politely will also endeavor to cover these races as best we can, so check back often.

Photo from Champaign County Illinois Facebook page.

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