Chicago’s new mayor got his job, in part, thanks to thousands of young voters who showed up to vote for the first time this year in the municipal runoff election.
While younger voters are historically less likely to vote than older voters, Chicagoans between the ages of 18 and 34 cast 27,500 more ballots in the April runoff than in the February general election — a 27% increase that was unmatched by the change among any other age group — according to data released by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Overall, the growth in youth participation was higher in wards that Johnson won compared to wards mayoral candidate Paul Vallas won in the runoff, according to a WBEZ analysis of the board’s data.
This data, released on May 5, represents roughly 81,000 more paper and mail-in ballots, tabulated by age group, than the data WBEZ used for its most recent report on youth voting just after the April 4 runoff election.
“Younger voters tend to show up in presidential years, drop off a bit but still show up for midterm years,” said Max Bever, director of public information at the board of elections.
Younger voters “show up the least for municipal election years,” Bever said.
But the surprising growth in participation among younger voters in a narrowly won election — Johnson won by a margin of roughly 26,400 votes — “really goes to show how much an age group can turn out and increase their voter turnout, and how much that really matters in an election,” said Bever.
Participation amongst Chicago’s youngest voters, those ages 18 to 24, increased in all wards but nearly doubled in some areas of the city, according to a WBEZ analysis. Voters 18 to 24 cast roughly 70% more ballots in the runoff in the 34th Ward, a Near West Side ward where the University of Illinois Chicago campus is located, and in the 44th Ward, which covers the Lake View community on the North Side.
The percentage increase was more modest in some wards on the Southwest and far Southeast sides. For instance, in the 10th Ward, the increase in votes from 18- to 24-year olds was just 10%.
For voters 55 years and older, only one ward saw a percentage increase greater than 10%. The 11th Ward, the city’s only majority-Asian ward, which includes Chinatown and Bridgeport, saw a 13% increase in the number of votes cast from the general to the runoff election. Nearly half the city’s wards saw a decline in votes from Chicagoans 55 and older.
The WBEZ analysis shows varying levels of growth in young voter participation between various racial and ethnic communities in Chicago. The number of ballots cast by voters ages 18 to 34 increased the most in majority-white wards, by roughly 30%. In majority-Black, majority-Asian and majority-Latino wards, the increase was 25%, 20% and 17%, respectively.
Among voters ages 35 to 54, the largest percentage increase in votes was in majority-white wards, at 13%, and the smallest increase was in majority-Latino wards, at 1%.
As for voters 55 years and older, votes decreased in majority-Latino wards, stayed flat in majority-Black wards and increased by 5% in majority-white wards.
Chicago Votes is a nonpartisan civic engagement nonprofit that focuses on young Chicagoans. Camille Williams, the organization’s get-out-the-vote manager for the municipal elections this year, said the Johnson campaign’s youth outreach efforts energized a lot more young people to vote in the runoff.
“With Brandon Johnson, we saw that within his team there were a lot of community organizers who came from underserved communities,” Williams said. Johnson’s campaign “mobilized and took into consideration what these communities needed, that is what helped with the younger voter turnout as well as [with] getting him elected into office as our newest mayor of Chicago.”
Williams also said many young people told her Johnson’s background as a candidate — a former teacher and someone who was on a payment plan with the city — made him more relatable for young Chicagoans than his mayoral rival, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.
The percentage increase in votes from the general to the runoff election was highest among young voters in wards Johnson won in the runoff, compared to wards Vallas won, according to a WBEZ analysis.
Despite the growth in participation in this year’s mayoral runoff, younger voters are typically the least likely age group to participate.
Voter turnout, which is the number of ballots cast out of the total number of registered voters, was still lower for younger voters than older voters.
In April’s election, voter turnout was 23% amongst 18- to 24-year olds and 28% amongst 25- to 34-year olds. Turnout was 37% among registered voters ages 35 to 54 and 51% for registered voters 55 years and older.
Williams said getting young people civically engaged starts with everything from providing ways for them to learn about civics at an early age in school to ensuring young people feel heard by their elected officials.
On the campaign trail and already in his first few days in office, Johnson has said investing in young people is a top priority for his administration. He signed four executive orders on his first day, one of which directs the Office of Budget and Management to identify resources to fund jobs and year-round recreation and education programs for young Chicagoans.
Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @amyqin12.