Spring is late coming to the Midwest this year, but democracy is blooming in Illinois. Most of the state is to hold township elections on April 9 to elect some of the most redundant and least useful public officials in American politics.
Personally, I could do with more tulips and fewer townships.
Townships are the dandelions on the lawn of democracy, hardy perennials with minimal purpose but impossible to kill off. They represent grassroots self-government run wild, 18th century expressions of Jeffersonian democracy with no purpose today except as havens for political time-servers who could disappear without anyone much noticing.
Of the fifty U.S. states, only twenty – eleven of them in the Midwest -- have the township form of government. In those states, townships function in some locales, not in others. Mostly, they exist in rural areas, although some live on in cities and suburbs that used to be rural. The functions they perform often duplicate functions performed by overlapping city or county governments. All have full-time employees, supported by taxpayers, virtually impossible to fire.
They do, however, come up for election. Not on the first Tuesday after the second Monday in November, when presidents and governors are elected. But in a special election which, in Illinois at least, falls on the second Tuesday of April. Hence the election in this state April 9.
Some details are necessary. Illinois has 1,432 townships, spread across 84 of its counties. The state actually has 102 counties, but 18 of them make do without townships, as does Chicago, which abolished townships within the city limits 111 years ago: government in Chicago may not meet the democratic ideal, but no one here suggests re-adopting townships as a cure.
(Townships proliferate equally in other Midwestern states. Indiana has 1,008 of them, Michigan 1,240, Ohio 1,309, and Minnesota no fewer than 1,784, even though they serve only 17 percent of Minnesota’s 5 million residents.)
If Chicago dumped townships, the rest of its county, Cook County, still has them. In this suburban remnant, like parts of the rest of the state, the elections on April 9 elections will fill a dizzying variety of offices, many of them overlapping.
(In fairness, this overlapping exists only in 11 of the 20 states with townships. Unfortunately, those 11 include eight Midwestern states – Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. Three of the other nine states – the Dakotas and Wisconsin – don’t have overlapping jurisdictions.) (See Population of Interest- Municipalities and Townships)
Since so little is at stake in the Illinois election, few people will vote and even fewer will note the outcomes. Like most citizens, I didn’t know this election was scheduled until a special section appeared in the Chicago Tribune, listing in small type the offices up for grabs.
The absurdity of townships is evident in the numbers. Remember, Illinois has 1,432 townships in 84 counties, which averages at 17 townships per county. Cook County itself has 30 townships, even without Chicago, which has 60 percent of the county’s population.
Each of these townships includes several towns and villages, all with their own functions, many of them duplicating the township functions. They also include park districts, school districts, library districts, community college districts, even fire protection districts.
For instance, Thornton Township, in the southern part of the county, includes 16 towns, 12 park districts, 11 library districts and 16 school districts: the few voters there who will go to the polls on April 9 will get to elect no fewer than 231 officers, many of them full-time employees.
A bit to the north, in the southwest part of the county, lies Lyons Township, which will elect 237 officers for 17 towns, 12 park districts, seven library districts and 15 school districts.
There are 28 other townships in Cook County, all with the similar election slates. You get the picture.
The towns themselves hold their election the same day and will elect their mayors, city clerk, city treasurer and other officials, all with jobs related to the towns. The townships will also elect supervisors, clerks, assessors, highway commissioners and the like, all with jobs related to the township, which includes the towns, where there are other people doing the same job. How many assessors and clerks do we need?
Defenders of townships point out that they are responsible for shoveling, maintaining and patching roads – 71,000 miles of them in Illinois, or 52 percent of the roads in the state. Maybe so, but one wonders what the other highway departments – state, county and city – are doing, and why this roadwork can’t be consolidated in one place, saving everybody some money.
Like a lot of American problems, this one has roots in the 18th century. Back in 1785, Congress passed the Land Ordinance, decreeing that the land north and west of the Ohio River be divided by surveyors into townships, which should be 36 square miles, six miles by six miles.
This was two years before the Northwest Ordinance which decreed where Midwestern states lines would be and provided for counties and for elections to govern them.
Unfortunately, neither ordinance said that voters in future years could decide whether any of these jurisdictions – states, counties or townships – have any relevance in later centuries. So the Midwest is still balkanized by state lines drawn before the states even existed, and the states are further split into counties and the counties are split into townships.
Once upon a time, this made sense. Roads were few or impassable and modern communications didn’t exist. Townships and counties were laid out to make it easy for settlers in those days to do official business in a reasonable time. Legend has it that counties themselves are so small because the elders of the day wanted to make sure that an unmarried couple in a horse-drawn buggy could get a marriage license in the county seat and get home by sundown, to prevent any twilight hanky-panky in the haystacks.
Today, this official business can be done online or, at a pinch, by phone. Any Midwesterner can drive across a county in a half hour or even walk across a township in an hour or two. Townships that once contained nothing by 36 square miles of prairie grass today embrace a half dozen towns, as in Cook County. If these exercises in mini-government ever had a purpose, it vanished a century or more ago.
Critics have railed against this nonsense for years without result. Getting rid of dandelions is easier than getting rid of townships. In Illinois, voters cannot just vote to dissolve their township. They also must get every other township in their county to agree in a referendum that requires signatures of 10 percent of voters in each township, just to get on the ballot. Clearly, this won’t happen.
Critics of big government are trying to chop state spending on education, health and other vital services. Perhaps some pruning of small government is a better place to start.