Few state primaries offer voters choice

Analysis shows Illinois’ March 19 primary is least competitive in at least two decades

Series: Decision 2024 | Story 1

On March 19, voting will conclude in primary contests for hundreds of seats in the Illinois legislature and in the state’s court system. But most of those contests are uncompetitive.

Statewide, 88 percent of judicial and state legislative primaries feature either a single candidate or no one running at all. This is the highest number of uncompetitive primaries for those seats in at least 20 years, according to a Capitol News Illinois analysis of data going back to 2004.

The number of primaries with no candidates running at all is similar to years past, about 33 percent. But the number of primaries with a single person running has jumped to 55 percent, from 46 percent in 2020.

John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said Illinois’ primary participation mirrors a national trend and is partially stoked by growing political polarization and state redistricting practices. The state process for drawing legislative districts is a partisan one by law, meaning many districts have been drawn in a way that favors one party over the other.

While that’s made primaries increasingly important in districts that lean heavily in favor of one party over the other, it’s also helped reinforce a trend of parties choosing not to run candidates in districts that were not drawn in their favor.

“The only battle is the primary,” Shaw, a former congressional reporter, told Capitol News Illinois.

Shaw said the expectation of candidates to work across the aisle has decreased in recent decades, meaning that parties lean into ideology more.

“It is not good for governance when candidates run unopposed in a primary or general election,” Shaw said.

For about 65 percent of state legislative and judicial seats, only one party’s primary has any candidates running, with most of those primaries featuring a single candidate.

While many of those races will likely be uncompetitive in the general election as well, the number of contested seats could grow beyond what the primaries indicate via a political appointment process. The political parties have until June 3 to select a person to run on the party’s behalf in races where the primaries did not produce a winning candidate.

Long-term trends

John Jackson, a professor at the Paul Simon Institute, said the stark divisions in party control are driven by party realignment and polarization, which have resulted in fewer candidates running on politically moderate platforms.

“That started nationally, then trickled down to state, even now to local,” he said.

Jackson, who works at an institute founded by and named for a conservative Democratic senator, noted this trend only emerged in the past few decades.

“There used to be moderates in the Republican party and moderates in the Democratic party,” Jackson said. “They were much more heterogeneous than they are.”

In Illinois, that’s led to stark partisan divides that also fall squarely along urban-rural lines. The city of Chicago remains the center of Democratic power in a democratically controlled state. Republicans have few primary candidates in the city and no serious challengers to most Democrats running.

Rural Illinois, meanwhile, remains almost unrepresented by the state’s Democratic party in the legislature or on the bench, with few Democratic candidates filing to run on rural primary ballots.

Only one legislative seat is competitive for both Democrats and Republicans: the 76th House District. This district contains most of the city of DeKalb as well as stretches of DeKalb, LaSalle and Bureau counties. The district’s current representative — Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa — is not running for reelection, and two Republicans and three Democrats are vying to replace him.

The legislative primaries that have drawn the most candidates include two four-way Democratic contests in the Chicago area — the 20th Senate District in the city and the south suburban 79th House District — and one four-way Republican contest in the 53rd Senate District.

Judicial elections

While there are primaries for 82 judicial positions across the state, about 85 percent of them feature either one or no candidate on the ballot. Just over half feature a single candidate across both major party primaries.

Part of this is due to the high number of races in Cook County — a very Democratic area — which operates the second largest court system in the nation.

But the low number of interested candidates can be partially explained by shifting career goals among lawyers, according to Elizabeth Monkus, senior research attorney at the nonprofit judicial reform advocacy group Chicago Appleseed Center.

“People come into the profession with different goals than they used to,” Monkus said.

Monkus noted that there are more people interested in what she called “movement lawyering,” where an attorney furthers political and social goals through legal advocacy, rather than working as a trial lawyer or working on criminal cases.

“If you’re working to change the world, judges have less power to do that than you might expect,” Monkus said.

— Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.