After a fierce primary campaign dominated by gun control, ethics and economic woes, voters were choosing the likely replacement for Jesse Jackson Jr. on Tuesday, three months after his legal troubles and battle with depression forced the son of the civil rights leader to resign from Congress.
The Democratic front-runners — former state Rep. Robin Kelly, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale — made Election Day stops through the blistery winter weather at train stations and restaurants in the district, which spans Chicago's South Side, south suburbs and some rural areas.
They were among 14 Democrats and four Republicans in the special primary, but the Democratic winner was expected to sail through the April 9 general election because the area is heavily Democratic.
Halvorson, who lost a primary challenge to Jackson last year, has been targeted for her position on gun control, which became a key issue in the district, parts of which have been deeply affected by Chicago's gun violence.
Independence USA, the super PAC of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, poured more than $2 million into the race for anti-gun ads in support of Kelly and against Halvorson, a former state lawmaker and one-term congresswoman. Kelly supports an assault-weapons ban, but Halvorson does not.
After casting her ballot, Halvorson warned that if the ads are successful Bloomberg will try to "buy seats" across the country.
"We can't let that happen," she said.
Beale also took issue with the ads, saying people are "extremely upset" that someone from New York is trying to tell people in Illinois how to vote and predicting that there will be a "backlash."
The guns issue dominated candidate forums and television ads and also appeared to have resonated with voters.
Mary Jo Higgins of south suburban Steger said she voted for Halvorson because the former congresswoman is "the only Democrat who believes in the Second Amendment."
But Country Club Hills minister Rosemary Gage voted for Kelly because the former state lawmaker is "standing with (President Barack Obama) and trying to get rid of guns."
"It's really bad in Chicago and across the country," Gage said. "Too many children have died."
The issue of ethics was also on the minds of voters, particularly as Jackson's legal saga has been playing out in federal court. He pleaded guilty early this month to charges that accused him of misspending $750,000 in campaign money on lavish personal items, including a Rolex watch and furs.
His departure created a rare opening in the district, where voters haven't seen an open primary since 1995, when Jackson first won office.
Halvorson was greeted by cheers of "good luck" and "go Debbie go" as she cast her ballot at a suburban community center in the village of Steger. Speaking afterward, she said it was time for voters to close the chapter on Jackson's ethical problems and send someone to Washington who could hit the ground running.
Halvorson is counting on voters in the southern, more rural part of the district, where she grew up.
David Berchem, a retired painter, said he voted for Halvorson because he believes she will represent all residents of the district and she's "as honest a person as you can find."
Beale voted at a school in Chicago, while Kelly voted early.
Beale touted his record as a job creator for the South Side ward he represents in Chicago's City Council.
That's the reason Juanita Williams, who went to school with Beale, said she voted for him Tuesday, noting that he helped bring a Wal-Mart to the area. The 47-year-old assistant teacher also said Beale has regularly provided school supplies and Christmas gifts to needy students.
Election officials in the three counties covering the district reported no problems at the polls, even though voters and poll workers had to contend with a blustery mix of snow and sleet. Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation deployed extra resources to keep polls accessible.
Jackson is the third consecutive congressman from the district to leave office under an ethical or legal cloud. He resigned in November after a months-long medical leave for treatment of bipolar disorder and other issues.
Turnout at the polls was extremely low, according to early estimates, and election officials said the weather might have kept some voters on the fence at home.
The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners said roughly 11 percent of registered Chicago voters in the district had voted through early afternoon, including early and absentee ballots. Final projections were expected to be in the mid-teens, still one of the lowest turnouts in recent decades. Election officials in Will and Kankakee counties said turnout hovered around 10 percent.
The last time the Chicago area had a special primary election for Congress was in 2009, after Rahm Emanuel left his seat to take a job as White House chief of staff. Roughly 18 percent of registered voters in the district spanning North Side neighborhoods voted. In suburban Cook County, the percentage was far lower.