Phoenix 101: Understanding Cook County’s 2020 Down-Ballot Races

Kayleigh Padar | The PhoenixThe Phoenix has you covered with all the information you need about the lesser-known races on the ballot in Cook County.

Right now, it might feel like the only thing on everyone’s mind is the presidential election. But Cook County voters have more races to think about, including the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner, the state’s attorney and tens of judges’ retentions. 

It can be difficult to understand who the people on the ballot are and how they impact local government in ways we might not always see. 

To get a better idea of what students should keep in mind when choosing between these lesser-known candidates, The Phoenix spoke to John Pelissero, a professor emeritus who’s taught political science classes about Chicago government at Loyola. 

“I would say the main reason these races matter is that these are the offices in which public officials are closest to the people and they’re going to have the most impact locally on our lives,” Pelissero said. “On a day-to-day basis, we may react to things that are going on in Washington D.C., but the direct impact on us is not going to be as noticeable as it may be with local candidates.” 

What is a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner and how can I know who to choose for the role? 

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is responsible for managing all the sewage in the greater Cook County area. This includes treating the sewage and controlling floods by making sure untreated sewage doesn’t end up in Lake Michigan or the Chicago River, Pelissero said.

“From an environmental standpoint, this is a very important government entity to manage water quality in the Chicago metropolitan area,” Pelissero said. 

Of the six people listed on the ballot, voters can choose three to sit on the board of commissioners for six-year terms. When choosing who to vote for, Pelissero said voters should consider if the candidate has an understanding of the environmental impact the Water Reclamation District has as well as if the candidate has a background in things like civil engineering or environmental water standards. 

“I think voters should be looking for someone who has at least an essential understanding of the mission of the Water Reclamation District and then perhaps some experience or education that would qualify them to serve for this six-year term as a commissioner.” 

What does a state’s attorney do and who is qualified to be one? 

The Cook County state’s attorney prosecutes all cases that go through the county’s judicial system. Pelissero said this includes getting to decide which cases will be prosecuted and which cases will go to grand juries. 

“In the current situation of our country, where we’re seeing so many civil disservices, demonstrations and unfortunately some rioting and looting taking place, it’s the state’s attorney in every county who decides which cases are a priority, who will be prosecuted and makes recommendations to sitting judges about how to handle all the cases they want to move forward with,” Pelissero said. 

When researching the three candidates on the ballot who are up for four-year terms, Pelissero said it’s important to focus on their recent actions and past experience to consider how they might act in the role if elected. 

What’s a Cook County Circuit Court clerk and who is qualified to be one? 

The role of a clerk in the circuit court is to be the primary recorder of documents and files on behalf of all cases in the Cook County circuit court system, Pelissero said. When choosing between the two candidates up for a four-year term, Pelissero said students should look at how the job has been performed in the past. 

“It’s very important to take a look at this because if the clerk of the court was to misfile or lose certain documents related to a case, it could have a dramatic impact on someone’s civil rights being protected in our county judicial system,’ Pelissero said. 

What should I do about all of those judges? 

The judges voters see on their ballots play an important role because they’re responsible for “the administration of justice” in Illinois courts, Pelissero said. Once judges are elected, five or ten years go by before voters get another opportunity to decide if they should stay in their positions. 

“I think it’s difficult for anyone to learn about every judge and have the time to do that in order to make an informed choice,” Pelissero said. 

Pelissero said one of the best resources for students to look at is the Chicago Bar Association’s recommendations, which lists if each judicial candidate is qualified based on their records and experience. 

Where can I learn about the candidates? 

For more specifics on who’s running, students can see an example ballot on Cook County’s website. 

A variety of websites offer summaries of candidates’ background information, such as BallotReady, which is an online nonpartisan voter guide that originated in Chicago, The Phoenix reported. InJustice Watch, a nonpartisan non-profit journalism organization, offers an interactive voter guide specifically for judicial elections across the country that summarizes judges’ backgrounds, qualifications, controversies and recent appearances in the media. 

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