Two weeks before Chicago’s Feb. 28 municipal election, the city’s early vote count is far outpacing recent municipal election participation turnouts as voters return mail-in ballots in record-shattering numbers
Chicago voters had cast 63,949 ballots through Tuesday, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. Voters had cast 12,607 ballots at the same point in the 2019 municipal election and 14,891 in 2015.
Voting authorities are hopeful the substantial early returns will mean the municipal election reaches 40% turnout of registered voters for the first time since 2011, election board spokesperson Max Bever said.
“If we continue to see this brisk pace in turnout, we are definitely due to break the trend of the last few municipal elections and get that over 40%,” he said.
The early turnout has been heavily fueled by mail-in ballots. Voters have returned over 13 times as many mail-in ballots as they did in the last election, city data shows, a sharp increase that matches voting behavior trends seen across the country and in Chicago since the COVID-19 pandemic first affected in-person voting.
Over 200,000 mail-in ballots have been requested and 45,368 have been returned, election board data shows. Many of the returned ballots come from the city’s new roster of people who requested to automatically receive such ballots, Bever said.
But voters also are turning out to cast in-person ballots at rates that far surpass the last two elections. Chicagoans have cast 18,581 early in-person ballots, compared with 9,311 at the same point in 2019 and 12,150 in 2015.
The pace of early in-person voting has picked up since the election board opened voting sites in each of the city’s 50 wards Monday, Bever said. Two in-person voting sites have been open in the Loop since Jan. 26, and voters can cast ballots at any early voting site, regardless of where they live.
“I think it points to voters becoming more comfortable with both early voting and voting by mail,” Bever said of the substantial early turnout. “Compared to the last two election cycles, we are far ahead.”
Bever said the early turnout shows Chicagoans are making up their minds quicker than in previous years. But he acknowledged that it is too early to say whether turnout will be higher or lower than in the past.
“We sure hope that this is indicative that turnout is going to stay up,” he said. “But we can’t be for certain yet.”
Election authorities are hopeful the “swift” mail-in ballot returns and high early in-person turnout means people are interested in the election, headlined by a fierce, nine-candidate race for mayor.
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The record number of candidates on the ballot, propelled by the dozens running for new police district council seats, might also be leading to voters more regularly interacting with campaigns, Bever said.
The February general election will be voters’ only opportunity to vote in the police council races, though the mayoral election and some aldermanic races are likely to go to an April 4 runoff. Many races will likely be too close to call on election night, Bever said.
“Quite a few of these races really come down to a handful of votes,” he added.
Chicago has only hit 40% turnout for one general municipal election since 2000, when Rahm Emanuel easily won the race for mayor in 2011.
In 2019, just 35% of Chicago’s registered voters cast ballots in the municipal election’s first round when 14 candidates battled for an open mayor’s seat. When voters elected Lori Lightfoot in the second round, 33% of registered Chicagoans voted.
Bever said turnout has been higher on the North Side, in wards with heavily-contested City Council races and in wards close to the two sites in the Loop where early voting and drop boxes have been most accessible.
Early voting sites are open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mail-in ballots can be returned via mail or entered at ballot drop boxes, available during operating hours at early voting sites. Voters have until Feb. 23 to apply for mail-in ballots. The ballots must be postmarked by Feb. 28 to count.
Polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day. Voters can also cast ballots at the early voting sites on Election Day. For more information on the municipal election and voting, visit chicagoelections.gov.