CHICAGO — The city is on track to break its early voting and vote-by-mail records for municipal elections as the Feb. 28 election nears.
Voters have cast 85,806 as of Thursday night: 28,283 ballots at early voting sites and 57,523 via vote-by-mail. That far outpaces other recent city elections, putting Chicago on track for a record-breaking year for early turnout, officials said.
For comparison, on Feb. 14, 2019 — the last time the city was 12 days out from a municipal election — there had been 18,789 early votes and 7,409 vote-by-mail ballots cast.
On Feb. 12, 2015, when the city was 12 days out from that year’s election, there had been 22,305 early votes and 5,383 vote-by-by mail ballots cast.
Early voting kicked off in late January at two Downtown sites and expanded to include 50 neighborhood polling places Monday.
Vote-by-mail ballots started going out in late January to voters who have requested them; voters have until Feb. 23 to apply to vote by mail, though officials have encouraged Chicagoans who want to vote by mail to apply earlier to ensure they receive and return their ballot on time.
It’s too soon to tell if overall voter turnout will be higher than in past years, though. Max Bever, spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said the agency wants to hit a turnout of at least 40 percent. Precious city elections averaged turnout of about 36 percent, he said.
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But if early voting continues to trend higher, the elections board expects a much higher overall turnout this year, Bever said.
And there are promising signs of that: Vote-by-mail applications have been at their highest point ever ahead of this year’s election, Bever said. That means there are many people who can still cast a ballot through the mail.
One thing that could be driving the surge in voting before Election Day is the large number of candidates running for mayor and City Council seats, Bever said.
There are nine mayoral candidates and 175 aldermanic candidates across the 50 wards, as well as numerous people running for the 22 newly created police district councils.
There are also many open races, as a broad swathe of north lakefront alderpeople opted to resign before the election or not run for reelection. Two others, Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th), are running for mayor and therefore can’t run to be alderpeople.
The flurry of campaign activity means are people are “very aware of an upcoming election,” Bever said.
“There’s a lot of open races with a lot of excitement with a lot of different candidates,” Bever said.
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The increased early turnout could also be due to Chicagoans becoming more comfortable with using vote-by-mail and early voting, Bever said. City and state officials have made efforts in recent years — especially at the height of the pandemic, when some people feared busy polling places — to make voting before Election Day more accessible, he said.
The mild winter weather could also be helping people get to the polls, Bever said.
If vote-by-mail continues to get more popular, those kinds of voters could drive turnout in future elections, Bever said.
But there will likely always be many people who wait until Election Day to cast their ballot.
“Even though we’re just under two weeks to Election Day, that’s still a long time for a lot of voters,” Bever said. “When it comes to municipal elections, especially non-partisan elections, that’s a lot of time for things to happen in the campaign or for a candidate to say something or come down on an issue.
“So, we do know that quite a few voters will be waiting for Election Day to make their votes. That’s why it’s exciting to see the amount of turnout that we’ve seen so far for this election, too.”
Election Day is Feb. 28. Voters can vote at more than 50 early voting sites on or before Election Day, or they can still apply to vote by mail or they can vote in person on Election Day.
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