Early voters set record in Chicago election, but turnout at polls is ‘sluggish,’ officials say

CHICAGO — It’s election day and Chicago voters have been heading to the polls since 6 a.m. to cast ballots in the hotly contested mayoral race and to vote for aldermen in all 50 wards.

Incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot is being challenged by eight candidates as she seeks reelection to a second term.

Chicago voters for the first time in city history will be able to vote for representatives on civilian police oversight councils.

Many races — including likely the mayor’s race — won’t be decided until runoffs on April 4. Candidates for mayor and aldermen won’t win office Tuesday unless their vote totals exceed 50%.

Weather forecasters predict a partly cloudy day Tuesday with a high of 45 degrees. The polls will be open until 7 p.m.

Chicago Board of Elections Chair Marisel Hernandez started off Election Day at 6 a.m. to share voter turnout updates and vote-by-mail totals at the Chicago early voting supersite located at 191 N. Clark St.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 390,455 ballots had been cast at early voting sites or received by mail by the Chicago Board of Elections, the highest number ever for early voting in a municipal election. So far, that is about 25% of the city’s 1,581,564 registered voters. By age groups, most votes — around 21% — have been placed by people 65 to 74. There are still more than 100,000 mail-in ballots that have yet to be returned to the board.

“We expect a good turnout today, as we know that many voters have been listening to the candidates, understanding their positions and now it’s time to vote,” Hernandez said at the morning news conference.

Fourteen polling places opened late, including three in the 36th Ward, officials said. Overall, few problems were reported.

A complaint was filed against one election judge in the 5th Ward, but the judge remained on the job.

“It’s been eerily quiet,” said Max Bever, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections. “Unfortunately, I think that’s (because) turnout is sluggish. ... We seem to be consistently 8,000-10,000 less voters per hour compared to 2019.″

It remains to be seen if the record-breaking early voting and voting by mail turnout will lower the number of voters who show up to the polls by the end of the day, but historical voting patterns suggest that it might still be a busy day, Bever said.

Turnout was 21% by midday. Bever said he was hoping for 40% by day’s end, “but if voting stays sluggish, not sure.”

Emmanuel Camargo, a 50-year-old Fulton Market resident who works in IT, came to the early voting supersite in the Loop to drop off his mail-in ballot to vote for Lightfoot. He said his support for Lightfoot never wavered, unlike his wife, who is not voting for Lightfoot on Tuesday.

“We need leadership,” Camargo said. “I think her opponents are criticizing her failures, and they are failures of her administration, but it was (an) unprecedented (period of time).”

Marie Drevets, 22, an engineer who lives in Logan Square, also dropped off her mail-in ballot at the early voting supersite, but, unlike Camargo, she voted for U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, whom she said she has come to trust.

”I wasn’t satisfied with Mayor Lightfoot,” Drevets said. “I’m not satisfied with her stands on public safety, and I haven’t really seen a lot of efforts to improve that.”

Ava Berry, 55, came to Silvie’s — a bar fitted with a disco ball — in the North Center neighborhood to vote for Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. Her dog, Humphrey, came along with her for his third voting experience.

Berry said she voted for Johnson after picking through all the candidates’ websites looking for “authentic gestures versus speaking points.”

”He spoke of equity in education throughout the city,” said Berry, who works for a nonprofit focused on employing people in underresourced communities in the city and partners with a nonprofit dedicated to reducing gun violence on the South and West sides.

“It is interesting because (mayoral candidate) Paul Vallas has a history in the Chicago Public School system, but somehow he didn’t speak to me,” Berry said, adding that Johnson also spoke to the issue of reducing gun violence.

David Galvan, who has lived in Bridgeport for all of his 70 years, was the first voter at the boathouse at Park #571. The morning started out at the polling place with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” thanks to the site’s election coordinator Bryan Keane.

Galvan said he chose to not vote for Lightfoot because “she ain’t doing nothing.”

“To be honest with you, I don’t believe there is a politician in the state of Illinois that can do anything about the violence,” said Galvan, who works at Rush University Medical Center and acknowledged he “wasn’t a good kid” in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Early voting turnout suggested interest in the race is relatively high, exceeding both the 2019 and 2015 mayoral races.

In looking just at votes received before Election Day, this year saw far more mail-in ballots, coupled with a continued heavy number of votes cast at early voting sites.

As of Monday morning, early-vote turnout was the highest in wards known for dense populations of city workers: the 19th Ward on the Far Southwest Side, the 41st and 38th on the Far Northwest Side, the 13th on the Southwest Side, and the 11th, centered around Bridgeport and Chinatown.

Bever said that both the June 2022 and November 2022 elections saw about 25% of voters who voted early, about 25% of voters who voted by mail and about 50% of voters who voted on Election Day, with this year’s early voting numbers suggesting the potential for a similar breakdown. With this year being a municipal election, even more voters could be inclined to show up on Election Day, as voters generally make up their minds much later in the municipal election process, according to Bever.

As in last year’s elections, election watchers see potential for issues stemming from redistricting and fewer polling places, which caused confusion among voters when some showed up at the wrong polling locations.

Bever said there were fewer people going to the wrong polling place Tuesday than the last election.

While there have not been significant changes in polling locations since last year, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the organization that runs the nonpartisan hotline 866-OUR-VOTE for voting issues on election day, will be looking out for calls from voters who are confused about where to vote.

Communities of color, which have historically faced steeper barriers in voting, are more likely to be affected by the change in polling locations, said Cliff Helm, an attorney with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Another group likely to face issues at the polls are those who are disabled. Just over a third of polling places are fully compliant with the Americans for Disabilities Act’s standards, according to a recent analysis by the Chicago Tribune.

While last year’s two-paged ballot aroused issues in various precincts, as election officials neglected to give every voter both pages of the ballot, this year’s ballot is one, single-sided page. Voters don’t have to worry about Sharpies being present at this year’s election either, as the Election Board opted for Papermate felt-tipped pens after concerns last year with the Sharpies, Bever said.

Bever told the Tribune on Tuesday morning that staffing shortages would be unlikely at the polls Tuesday, with 6,450 staff needed and a current total at 6,600 to account for cancellations and no-shows.

Voters can locate their polling place on the Chicago Board of Elections website or by calling the board at (312) 269-7900.

In addition to voters’ assigned polling locations, individuals can vote at any of the 51 early voting locations that remain open until 7 p.m. on Feb. 28.

Primary elections are also being in held Tuesday in a smattering of suburbs, including Aurora, Harvey, Dolton and Oswego.


(Chicago Tribune photographer Stacey Wescott contributed to this story.)