ST. LOUIS — — Voters in a struggling southern Illinois county have rejected a ballot referendum meant to pressure the county's governing board to restrict a debated oil drilling practice, leaving open the question of whether the measure failed because of confusion or the prevailing need for jobs.
With nearly half of the county's registered voters casting ballots during spring primaries traditionally marked by low turnout, the measure involving hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, failed Tuesday by a 600-vote margin, Johnson County Clerk Robin Harper-Whitehead said.
More than 2,220 people voted against the provision, while about 1,600 backed it, Harper-Whitehead said. There are 14 outstanding absentee ballots.
The nonbinding referendum was meant to advise the county's commission whether it should resist the drilling practice that involves blasting rock formations deep underground with water, sand and chemicals to release trapped oil and gas. While there's question about whether Johnson County even has sizeable underground oil reserves, critics of Tuesday's ballot measure had claimed environmentalists were hoping to make the county an anti-fracking foothold from which they could extend their campaign to other counties.
Harper-Whitehead and others in the county had welcomed an Election Day resolution of the issue, which for months had divided residents and hijacked the County Commission meetings. Fracking opponents worried about the possible risks it poses to public health and the environment, including the groundwater. But Monty Sanders — owner of 50 acres and operator of a small-engine repair shop — and others opposed to fracking restrictions argued that the drilling could provide an economic jolt to the county's economy, pointing to the boon it has been in some places.
"There isn't much down here, and something like that could bring in thousands of jobs. It's a big deal. We need jobs, and we need revenue," Sanders, 59, said Wednesday, a day after voting against the referendum. "I'm a landowner, and if I wanted fracking on my property. it's my business. By God if I could, I would."
The state's Legislature passed a law last year allowing fracking in Illinois, and the state Department of Natural Resources is in the process of drafting rules to govern it.
Calling Tuesday's results "disappointing," Annette McMichael of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment said anti-fracking forces who petitioned to get the question on the ballot would weigh their recourses and insisted that the matter is unresolved in Johnson County.
McMichael suspects voter confusion influenced the outcome, citing the referendum's language: "Shall the people's right to local self-government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their right to health, safety and a clean environment?"
McMichael said telephone surveys before the primary showed that some voters who cast ballots during the early voting period said they voted "no," believing that was a vote against fracking. But a "yes" vote actually would have been in favor of restricting the questioned drilling.
"It was a convoluted ballot initiative. In retrospect, (the ballot question) probably could have been written more clearly," McMichael said. "Truth will eventually win out. It just may take some time."
Ernie Henshaw, a county commissioner who had pushed for a defeat of the ballot measure, didn't immediately respond to messages Wednesday.
Henshaw had cast the referendum as the work of meddling outside environmentalists looking to make a stand in Illinois, and said that moving to restrict fracking could put the county in the crosshairs of costly lawsuits by the energy industry and landowners willing to lease their acreage for drilling.
Harper-Whitehead said Tuesday's primary drew 49.95 percent of the county's nearly 8,000 registered voters, the second-highest primary turnout there in the two decades she has been in office. She said it's unclear whether that showing was due to the fracking issue or other items of the ballot, including choosing nominees in the race to replace the longest-serving sheriff in Illinois history. Elry Faulker, first elected to that post in 1974, is retiring.