Skip to contents

Mayor’s Race Could Be Too Close To Call On Election Night, With Mail-In Votes The Deciding Factor

A crowded mayoral field, close aldermanic races and a meteoric rise in mail-in ballots could leave Chicagoans wondering who their leaders will be for a long time.

Mayoral candidates Ja’Mal Green, Ald. Sophia King (4th), State Rep. Kam Buckner, Willie Wilson, Brandon Johnson, ex-CPS CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Rep. Jesús "Chuy" García prepare for the NBC 5 mayoral forum on Feb. 13, 2023.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
  • Credibility:

CHICAGO — The election is Tuesday — but it could be days before Chicagoans actually know which officials will represent them come May.

An explosion in people voting by mail and a crowded field in the mayor’s race could leave races too close to call the night of, said Max Bever, spokesperson for the city’s election board.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman and a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor, said the latest he remembers an election being called was for Harold Washington’s Democratic primary in 1983. That was around midnight.

“I was at that event,” Simpson said. “Time moved slow.”

Time could move even slower this time around. Simpson also said there’s a “fairly high” chance the mayor’s race won’t be called by election night.

The board will start counting the mail-in ballots it already has on Election Day — but tight races might end up coming down to last-minute mail-in ballots that won’t trickle in for several days, delaying final results.

And there could be quite a few of those mail-in ballots.

The elections board sent out more than 210,000 vote-by-mail ballots this year — triple the amount it sent in 2019 during the last municipal election, and more than seven times the amount sent for the 2015 election, Bever said.

If any races come down to those ballots, it could take as long as the weekend after Election Day for a clear picture of likely winners, Bever said.

“The majority of mail-in votes will be coming in the days after, and it’ll take a bit of time to process and count them,” Bever said. “We’re reminding people to be patient this time around if it’s close.”

Another quirk: Some of the races this year feature crowded fields that could split voters and lead to runoff elections, which won’t happen until April. That means voters would have to wait months to see the final victor.

Chief among those is the mayor’s race, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot is facing eight challengers and there’s no clear leader in the polls.

A race heads to a runoff if no one candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote. In those cases, the two candidates with the largest shares of the vote will go to a runoff.

But, again, mail-in votes could be the deciding factor in which candidates actually head to the runoffs if the races are close.

A “very split electorate” makes a drawn-out count more likely, Simpson said.

“And when you’re dealing with only a percentage or 2 difference between candidates, it’s going to make it harder to tell who actually won,” Simpson said. Of the mayor’s race, he said, “Voters are having trouble deciding because, in truth, most of these candidates are not that different. There’s Wilson and Vallas, but the rest don’t really have big ideological differences; their arguments are about how the city gets there.”

And some races will be tight even without crowded fields. In 2019, some races were so close that they went to recounts and it was weeks before any candidate declared victory.

Bever said the elections board is expecting a slightly higher turnout — north of 40 percent — than it saw in past elections. Early voting has been higher than normal, too.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. 

Thanks for subscribing to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods. Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.

Listen to “The Ballot: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: