OPINION: Key factors point to higher Chicago voter turnout in March

SHARE OPINION: Key factors point to higher Chicago voter turnout in March
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(Tanya Moutzalias/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

In the election business, we tend to avoid making predictions on turnouts, especially when it’s a primary election, and particularly when we are three months out from Election Day.

The ballot for the March 20, 2018, primary election provides a rare exception. It’s an extremely safe bet that Chicago voter turnout will far exceed the 16 percent participation rate we saw at the last midterm primary, back in 2014.

OPINION

We do not have — or need — a crystal ball for the weather forecast. Here are the five factors that are much more predictive and how they relate to the 2018 primary:

1. Are there contests at the top of the ballot? Absolutely. There are contests for governor, attorney general, County Board president, county assessor and various legislative districts. That wasn’t true in the 2014 primary, when most of the offices had but one candidate.

2. Are there high-profile candidates in the contested races? Barring a stunning string of candidates withdrawing, the answer again is yes. Again, that wasn’t true up and down the 2014 primary ballots.

3. Are there conflicts or compelling issues that have surfaced in the last year? Whether it’s the state or the county, the answer is an overwhelming yes. A variety of legislative decisions engaged our citizens to think about many social issues, not to mention spending and taxing priorities, and competing visions for the future of our state and local government. Then, this past week, the Cook County Board placed an advisory referendum on the ballots asking whether we should legalize recreational use of marijuana.

While there also were compelling issues in the 2014 primary, most of the attention focused on the Republican primary for governor. Given how Chicago voters tend to pull more Democratic ballots in primaries, those debates did little to stir up Chicago’s 2014 primary turnout.

4. Next, will voters sense real competitions? On this question, it is too soon to say. As the debates begin airing and the polls begin to emerge in February, we’ll find out. As we sense one or more close races, we are more are likely to come out to vote. Consider how turnouts are strong everywhere in presidential elections, but participation is heaviest of all in “swing” states where voters feel their vote can truly impact the race.

5. Lastly, will there be voter awareness? Here again, we think the answer is yes. State and local campaigns in Illinois are widely expected to break records in spending. Additionally, major organizations began issuing endorsements earlier than ever. Campaign ads and mailings started last summer. Whether or not we like all of those ads and political mailings, that very activity tends to trigger more news-media coverage and voter awareness. Unless or until such activity becomes toxic in negativity, that awareness tends to lift turnouts.

So out of five key factors, four already point to a higher turnout than we saw in 2014 in Chicago. The only question that remains: how much higher?

As with everything else on the ballots, the voters will make that decision.

Marisel A. Hernandez has served on the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners since 2007, the last two years as the chairwoman.

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