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2019 Election Turnout Might Be The Worst In Chicago History

The 19th Ward had the highest turnout with 49.5 percent of voters casting a ballot. But the city is only at 32 percent overall.

A polling place in Lakeview in 2019.
Mauricio Pena/ Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Turnout for Chicago’s historic election on Tuesday, which saw the city vote in its first black, openly lesbian mayor, was among the worst in recent history.

Turnout was just about 32 percent as of Tuesday night, meaning it could end up setting a record low for municipal elections in Chicago. In all, about 497,000 people cast a ballot out of 1.56 million registered voters, according to preliminary data.

Before Tuesday, the worst turnout ever was in 2007, when 33 percent of Chicagoans showed up to vote in the race that pitted then-Mayor Richard M. Daley against Dorothy Brown and William “Dock” Walls.

It remains to be seen if there are enough ballots left to be counted to push up voter turnout past 33 percent and keep this election from setting the record for low turnout. Turnout won’t be finalized until April 16.

“Hopefully this won’t be the record-low turnout for” Chicago, said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections. “But it’s already not only in the same neighborhood but the same cul-de-sac.”

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There are many reasons voters might not have turned out despite the historic nature of the election, experts said.

Voters are smart and pay attention to polls, which favored Lori Lightfoot to win, meaning residents might have felt the election was “pretty much decided” already, Allen said.

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at UIC and a former alderman, said many voters probably thought it was a “foregone conclusion” Lightfoot would win based on polls. The lack of aldermanic races in this election — with the majority having already been decided in February — might have kept people from voting, too, he said.

And some voters might just not have cared for either candidate or seen a significant difference between Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, Simpson said.

“It could be that they thought either would be fine and that they would be satisfied with either, or you could have had very conservative voters not like either of them and decide they didn’t have a candidate they wanted to vote for,” Simpson said.

The turnout was “disappointing,” said Simpson, who would have liked to have seen turnout at 60 percent or even higher. But it’s often the case municipal elections get fewer voters than elections where a president, congressmen or a governor will be decided.

Voter turnout was highest in the 19th Ward, where 49.51 of registered voters cast a ballot. Turnout was high even though residents didn’t have an alderman to vote for, having decided to keep incumbent Ald. Matt O’Shea in February.

That’s because the 19th Ward is one of the few “political machine” wards left in the city, Simpson said.

The 22nd Ward saw the lowest turnout with just 18.15 percent of voters coming out.

There are a few reasons 22nd Ward residents might have stayed home, Simpson said: The ward is mostly Latino, and language barriers make it harder to vote or get news about candidates. Lower income Chicagoans could also be stuck working two or three jobs, leaving them little time to get to the polls.

And despite the low turnout seen throughout the city, it was still better than what the suburbs and other major cities typically get for municipal elections, Allen said.

That’s because “a lot of people are involved in politics” in Chicago, Simpson said, and there tends to be more at stake in Chicago elections than there is in most suburban elections.

“Sometimes New York and Los Angeles can get a higher turnout depending on how contested their mayoral election is, but Chicago is still very much a political city and there’s a lot at stake in our elections,” he said.

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