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Seeing Journalism Make a Difference in Election Results

Here’s to getting through the weeds, getting out to vote and the impact of local reporting. But our work isn’t over.

Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

I get pretty geeked out about going to vote.

I like chatting with the neighbors in line at my polling place, which is a hallway in the middle school both my sons attended. I’m excited to pick up my ballot from the same eye-patched man who has been handing it to me ever since I moved to Oak Park almost 20 years ago. And I never walk out without picking up an “I Voted” sticker and proudly affixing it to my jacket.

Voting gives me a voice in the community I deeply care about, occasionally even allowing me to help elect people I know, a local camping-group mom or hockey-team dad running for office. Also, as a naturalized citizen, this small, fundamental act has come to embody for me the privilege and responsibility of living in our democracy.

Even so, I never anticipated I’d be so astounded by the primary results in a race for Cook County assessor that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. But that’s what happened Tuesday, and here’s why.

For two years, our reporter Jason Grotto has been investigating the Cook County assessor’s office. As a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, he published a three-part series last summer that examined the residential property tax system and found that it benefited wealthy homeowners at the expense of those who lived in poor, mostly minority neighborhoods — and that the county’s appeals process actually exacerbated the inequity.

After Jason joined our ProPublica Illinois staff, he and our data reporter, Sandhya Kambhampati, took on an even more ambitious data project.

They conducted three separate analyses on commercial and industrial property assessments in Chicago and found that the values for more than two-thirds of the city’s properties went unchanged for so long that experts said they almost certainly couldn’t have been assessed. They learned that small-business owners were paying too much on their properties while owners of big buildings, especially downtown, paid too little. And that politically powerful property tax lawyers were making millions off an appeals process that seemed designed to line their pockets — and those of the assessor, who received more than half his campaign funding from those attorneys.

The nepotism, patronage and political machinations embedded in Assessor Joseph Berrios’ office were no secret. Journalists, reformers and other politicians had been railing about it for years, all to little effect. But no one had ever done the kind of complex analysis and deep reporting that documented how, exactly, the system was broken.

In nine months on our staff — starting even before we launched our website in October — Jason, often working in partnership with former Tribune colleagues, wrote more than a dozen stories pursuing the issue. As the conversation grew louder, other news organizations joined in, adding important, independent reporting and editorials. And on Tuesday, Berrios was voted out of office in a Democratic primary result so unexpected that one article described it as sending “political shock waves across the state.”

Of course, other factors likely came into play in his defeat. The Chicago Machine isn’t what it once was and the primary’s winner, Fritz Kaegi, a mutual fund asset manager, threw a lot of his own money into the race. But journalism made a difference and it made a difference in the most profound way.

Journalism inspired citizens to walk into the voting booth, one by one, exercising that fundamental act of democracy, to make their voices heard.

There is no more powerful impact than that.

P.S. We’re not done. Read about what systemic change needs to occur at the assessor’s office here and stay tuned for more.

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Portrait of Louise Kiernan

Louise Kiernan

Louise Kiernan was the Midwest editor at ProPublica.

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