About 1.5 million people are registered to vote in Chicago, but if historical trends hold, close to 1 million of them will skip the upcoming municipal election in just three weeks.
A WBEZ analysis of data from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners shows that fewer than four out of every 10 registered voters have cast ballots in all but one of the last five February municipal elections. The only exception was in 2011 when turnout reached 42%, the city’s first municipal election after longtime mayor Richard M. Daley decided not to seek reelection.
In addition, Chicago is coming off a November 2022 midterm election where just 46% of registered voters turned out — the lowest citywide figure for a midterm election in the past 80 years, according to WBEZ’s analysis.
It’s unclear what the voter turnout will be in the upcoming municipal election, but with a crowded field of nine candidates vying to be mayor, one thing is for sure: Every vote will matter.
Election Day is Feb. 28. In-person early voting has already begun and the deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Feb. 23. Find out more on how to register and vote here and on the candidates seeking election in WBEZ’s 2023 voter guide.
Here are some key takeaways from WBEZ’s analysis of historical voter turnout in February municipal, November midterm and November presidential elections.
1. Turnout reached a new low in last year’s midterm election.
Voter turnout measures the number of ballots cast out of the total number of registered voters. In the November 2022 midterm election, turnout dipped to 46%, the lowest citywide turnout figure dating back to 1942, the earliest year for which data were available.
“Voter access is a perennial issue,” said Ami Gandhi, director of voting rights and civic empowerment at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
But last year’s precinct consolidation and the accompanying polling location changes, when nearly half of Chicago voters were assigned new polling places, may have created confusion among voters and depressed turnout compared to previous elections, said Gandhi.
Other factors that may contribute to declining voter turnout are increased voter disillusionment with the political system and fewer contested races in recent elections, political science researchers told WBEZ.
2. Municipal election turnout has its peaks and valleys, but it’s lower now than it was in the 20th century.
Turnout in local elections generally lags national elections, but the 1980s were an exception in Chicago.
Turnout in the 1983 general election in April, the year Harold Washington was elected as Chicago’s first Black mayor, and in the 1987 general election, was roughly 15 percentage points higher than turnout in the preceding year’s midterm general election. Those figures were the result of a highly politicized environment in the city, as well as unprecedented efforts to register and mobilize the city’s Black voters.
In the years since, citywide turnout hasn’t come close to those highs. Chicago also switched its municipal elections to nonpartisan elections in 1999, which experts say may have contributed to lower turnout.
In a heavily Democratic city like Chicago, participation may be lower in nonpartisan elections because there’s no cue to vote along party lines, and it may take more effort to discern the differences between candidates.
“Nonpartisan races are tough, who do I vote for? They’re all Democrats,” said Christopher Z. Mooney, professor emeritus in the political science department at the University of Illinois Chicago.
3. There were wide geographic and racial disparities in voter turnout in the November 2022 midterm.
In the November midterm last year, there were wide geographic disparities in voter turnout. And turnout percentages in some majority-Latino and majority-Black precincts significantly lagged the figures in majority-white precincts.
Since data on the race or ethnicity of each voter isn’t publicly available, WBEZ examined voter turnout for each precinct — the smallest geography available for election data — based upon their demographic makeup, as determined by block-level census data.
The precinct with the highest turnout posted 82%, while the precinct with the lowest turnout posted just 14% — a gap of 68 percentage points.
Generally speaking, turnout was strongest in the Far Northwest, North, Mid-South and Far Southwest parts of the city. And it was weakest on the Near Northwest, West, Near Southwest and South sides. Collectively, voter turnout in majority-white precincts was about 60% and about 50% in precincts with no majority race, while it was under 40% in majority-Asian, majority-Black and majority-Latino precincts.
4. These racial gaps in voter turnout persist in elections at all levels.
Communities of color have had much lower turnout rates than majority-white communities in the last few elections, but most evidently in midterm elections.
Turnout may be lower in Latino communities because of a younger population and lower rates of citizenship, said Sylvia Puente, president and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum.
Advocates and local officials add it’s also because of a historic lack of voter outreach and engagement.
Ald. Michael Rodriguez represents the 22nd Ward, which is about 90% Latino and has historically posted some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the city.
“Elected officials and candidate parties also need to do a better job of speaking to my community,” said Rodriguez. “Many people do feel like they are an afterthought when you think about immigrant and Latino communities, and that’s got to change.”
For young Black voters on the South and West sides, low turnout may be a symptom of mistrust in the institutions and officials that are supposed to serve them.
“These are also the parts of the city that we’ve seen the most disinvestment, the most broken promises from elected officials,” said Katrina Phidd, communications and digital strategy manager at voting advocacy nonprofit Chicago Votes.
“I think communities are asking elected officials to meet their needs and hear them, and then, of course, we need the community members to turn out and vote, as well,” Phidd said.
5. Chicago’s voting strength is not as evenly distributed as the city’s population.
Many describe Chicago’s population as being roughly one-third white, one-third Latino and one-third Black — though the actual split is 31% white, 30% Latino, 29% Black and 7% Asian. But the share of ballots cast among precincts where each of those groups represent the majority of residents doesn’t line up with their share of the population due to disparities in citizenship, voting-age population, registered voters and voter turnout.
Majority-white precincts were most overrepresented, comprising 48% of ballots cast in the 2022 November midterms but just 36% of the voting-age population. Majority-Latino precincts were most underrepresented, comprising just 13% of all ballots cast but 21% of the voting-age population.